You Are What You Eat: 1 Timothy 4:1-7

Another famous passage people use to justify eating clean meats is 1 Timothy 4:1-7. At first glance it seems to do just that, but once you add context to is that interpretation falls apart. So, let's add some context.
Abstaining from Meats is False Doctrine?
1Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; 2Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; 3Forbidding 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. 4For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: 5For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. 6If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained. 7But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. 1 Timothy 4:1-7 KJV

Introduction

1 Timothy 4:1-7 is one—of two—of the only arguments for eating unclean foods that ever made the slightest bit of sense to me. It's a fairly convincing passage because, here, Paul is telling Timothy about some of the false doctrines that will appear in the end of days, and one such doctrine is abstaining from meats. Paul goes on to say that "every creature of God is good and not to be refused." Sounds not only like permission to eat whatever we want but a warning to be wary of those suggesting otherwise! However, as with all passages in the Bible, you have to put these words into context, and once you do, he's not giving us permission to eat unclean meat.

Putting the Passage into Context

The main difficulty of understanding what is written in the Bible stems from people assigning their interpretation based upon modern times and their own personal culture. However, the Bible was written thousands of years ago. Both the language and the culture of the people writing and reading the text was different from our own. To show how quickly phrases, words, and references can change, I have two examples:

When I was in middle school, I met a elderly lady from Alaska. After she described the scenery to me, I remarked that it sounded "cool." She immediately began to agree and explain the chilliness of the weather, but I meant "cool" as in hip, awesome, or interesting. Fast forward about 10 years and my younger cousin was going on about how much she loved the song "As Long As You Love Me." I agreed that I liked the song, but when she started singing it, she wasn't singing the song I was thinking of—she was referencing the more current hit by Justin Bieber and I was referencing the 90's hit by the Backstreet Boys.

My point: Biblical passages have to be put into the context of the people writing them and the time period in which they wrote. Since there's also a language change, studying the original text is helpful as well. At some point, I plan to take a class on Hebrew and Greek to help me when I study the word.

Biblical Context

Another important point of context for each passage is what other passages in the Bible say about the topic. Malachi 3:6 tells us that God does not change, which means if He didn't like it when Moses was writing it, He doesn't like it now. One example where God appears to change is when He grants Noah permission to eat flesh. Prior to this, everyone was vegetarian (or at least they were supposed to be vegetarian). Did God change His mind about killing animals for the purpose of food? No. In Isaiah 1:11 God says He hates the sacrifices and gets no pleasure from the blood. Remember, back then, people didn't go to the grocery store or the local burger place to get meat for their meals. The way they got meat was by first sacrificing an animal to God; it was the meat from this sacrifice that they ate (Exodus 12:1-10). If God didn't like needless sacrifices of the animals He created, do you think He delights in us killing the same animals in the name of gluttony? God simply allowed additional sources of nourishment because of the need that arose from flooding the planet. A secondary theory is that this a part of what he used to diminish the length of our life in punishment of the events preceding the flood.[12] We'll get into that in a different post.

In short, Paul's teachings cannot contradict the teachings of God; if they do, then Paul would be a false prophet.

What is Meat?

You may not think much of it, but I think it's important to define meat. Like the mix up I experienced with the lady from Alaska, words have a tendency to change, even if only in connotation, over time. Meat is one of those words. During the time the Bible was first translated to English, meat was used to describe any food substance. Even today, you can see the evidence of this if you look up "meat" in a dictionary. Merriam-Webster lists the top definition of meat as food or the edible part of something.[1]

We think of meat as the flesh of an animal: chicken, turkey, beef, pork, etc. Evidence of the Bible using "meat" to mean food as opposed to flesh can be seen in Genesis 1:29 and Leviticus 2:1. In these verses meat has nothing to do with flesh. This tells us that we need to be careful when interpreting the word "meat" in the Bible.

The word translated to "meat" in 1 Timothy 1:3 is βρωμάτων, which actually means "food of any kind."[3][4] So, the command Paul is referencing isn't specifically tied to flesh. Now, as we continue into verse 4, Paul references creatures (κτίσμα[5][6]), which indicates a focus on flesh. There are fewer restrictions on non-flesh foods so while the false doctrine might require unnecessary fasting of all foods, the real issue Paul is addressing is specific to the flesh.

Thanksgiving

Photocredit: Unsplash.com/Mantra Media
Once we establish that Paul is in fact addressing an issue related to flesh, it still seems like the passage is giving the OK to eat anything, right? Especially if that's what you've been taught your whole life and that's what you want it to mean. However, the clauses at the end of verse 3 and verse 4 add meaning that is often over looked. Notice that both verses reference "thanksgiving."

In 1 Timothy 1:3-4, Paul makes it clear that he isn't actually talking about any food, he's talking about the food that was created to be received with thanksgiving. What did God create to be received with thanksgiving? Herbs and fruit from plants bearing seeds (Genesis 1:29; 3:18) and clean meats (Leviticus 11).
Remember when I mentioned that the original Greek word is βρωμάτων? Strong's Exhaustive Concordance gives us the following definition of the word: "From the base of bibrosko; food (literally or figuratively), especially (ceremonially) articles allowed or forbidden by the Jewish law -- meat, victuals." In contrast, the word for unclean is ἀκάθαρτος[7]—though it does not ever seem to have been used in reference to food. ἀκάθαρτος is the word used in Acts 10:14,28, which we previously discussed.[7][8] The word in Timothy 4:3 is referring to ceremonial meat—that which was allowed by Jewish law (sacrifices to God, which are no longer necessary now that Jesus has given the ultimate sacrifice) and that which was forbidden by Jewish law (sacrifices to idols or things handled by pagans/Gentiles). The original is not specifying unclean meats.

Who is Speaking? Who is Being Spoken To?

Another thing we should consider is the point of view of the author and reader of the text. If you are speaking to an American and use the phrase "boot," he or she will assume you're talking about footwear. However, if you are talking to someone from Great Britain, he or she will assume you're referencing the trunk of your car.[10] Same language, different context.

The author of 1 Timothy is Paul, and although he is known for preaching Christ to the Gentiles, he was born a Jew. The recipient of the letter was Timothy, who was the son of a Greek man and a Jewish woman (Acts 16:1). Both men would have been well versed in the Jewish customs; specifically clean and unclean meat.

Assume I go out of town for a while and ask you to stay at my home to watch my cat. Before I leave, I tell you to make yourself at home and feel free to eat or drink anything you find in my home. Are you going to drink bleach or try to eat my cat's food? Of course not, you will know automatically that I'm giving you permission to eat the things we both agree are edible. Paul and Timothy would have the understanding that clean meats are food, but unclean meats would not have been considered βρωμάτων in their minds.

The Actual Command

From a modern perspective it seems really odd that someone would be forbidding us to eat clean meats. The debate within the church is on unclean meat, not clean meat; even among Seventh Day Adventists who promote vegetarian and vegan lifestyles it is clear that clean meats are still OK for us to eat.[9] So what is Paul talking about? As with most Biblical passages, there is a meaning that is specific to the time Paul was writing it, but there is also a meaning specific to today.

In Paul's Day

There was actually a few ways clean meat could become unclean according to Jewish tradition. The one I think bears the most relevance is that of meat sacrificed to idols.

In 1 Corinthians 8, another letter by Paul, the discussion of meat is around meat offered to an idol. In this passage, Paul is reminding believers that we know idols are not real. In Acts 15, once again we see a council of believers discussing the issue of eating meat offered to idols, and here, forbidding it. Paul and Timothy, as well as many other apostles, were teaching in societies that were not based on Godly worship. The people they were ministering to were not just Jews who trusted in Christ, but Greeks and Romans who had been worshiping pagan gods before. Their daily practices and marketplaces would have been abundant in meat sacrificed to idols because that is what was considered normal.

Back in South Carolina, where anything goes when it comes to food, it is very difficult to find Kosher food. Almost everything is cooked in fatback (pork) and since people do not care about the dietary laws, they don't think about mixing the utensils, surfaces, pots, etc. that come into contact with clean and unclean meats. This makes it hard for me to eat when I go home. I fully understand the plight of the people Timothy was ministering to. Their families and friends would likely continue to serve meat that had been sacrificed to idols and the marketplace would have contained meat to purchase that had been sacrificed to idols. Their question to Timothy would have been if it was OK to still eat that meat.

Today

Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats... 1 Timothy 1:3 KJV
Are you familiar with Lent? Many Denominations participate in this fast from Ash Wednesday until Easter, but it was started by the Catholic Church. When Lent first began it was actually a fast from flesh, though today people typically fast from anything they choose. Today, some Catholics still observe fasting from flesh on Fridays during the Lent season.[2][11] The Catholic Church also forbids their priests from marrying...

Up Next: Isaiah 66

We established earlier that each passage must fit within the context of the Bible. If our interpretation of a verse contradicts something else in the Bible, we have to go back and reassess our interpretation because something isn't right. If any of the verses I've been sharing with you actually mean you can eat unclean meats like pork, we have a problem with Isaiah 66. So next time, let's look at Isaiah 66.

References

  1. "Meat". Merriam-Webster Dictionary; visited September 15, 2017
  2. "US Bishops Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence". United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 1983
  3. "Interlinear Bible 1 Timothy 4:3". Bible Hub; visited December 29, 2018
  4. "1033. bróma". Strong's Concordance via BibleHub.com; visited December 29, 2018
  5. "Interlinear Bible 1 Timothy 4:4". Bible Hub; visited December 29, 2018
  6. "2938. ktisma". Strong's Concordance via BibleHub.com; visited December 29, 2018
  7. 169. akathartos". Strong's Concordance via BibleHub.com; visited December 29, 2018
  8. Ree Hughes. "You Are What You Eat: Acts 10". PSALMS to God. December 16, 2018
  9. Dr. Mark A. McCleary. "Meat on Adventist Church Property". Adventist Today. October 20, 2015
  10. "boot". English Oxford Living Dictionaries; visited December 29, 2018
  11. "Lent". Encyclopædia Britannica. March 22, 2018
  12. Bodie Hodge. "Why Did People Start to Have Shorter Lives After the Flood?". Answers in Genesis. July 16, 2010

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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