When we examine things that seem to contradict in Scripture, few are so difficult to consider as those that are connected to issues about which many will have deep theological convictions. When contradictions are noticed between the Bible’s statements regarding these things, contradictory passages will be quickly explained away, and passages supporting the beliefs of those setting them forth will be the ones that are emphasized. However, when it comes to the most important of issues, passages that offer a different view should not be swept under the rug. If an issue is important, then understanding all the Bible passages related to it must be equally important. Therefore, all passages involved should be examined and have their proper place. Nothing should be shoved under the rug. An issue like this may be the issue of “Clean and Unclean Meats.”
In the book of Acts chapter 15, an argument arose between Paul and Barnabas and certain men who came from Judea. They were disputing as to whether the new believers had to be circumcised after the manner of Moses and keep the law in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas, along with certain of the other party, went up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders to determine the answer to this question. The decision of the resulting Jerusalem council is summarized in Acts 15:29.
29. that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.
This laid the burden of avoiding foods offered to idols, avoiding eating blood, and avoiding eating things strangled upon all the new believers. These rules were not all the Jewish dietary laws, of course, but these were part of them. Yet in particular, the injunction against food offered to idols seems to contrast sharply with what Paul says in I Corinthians 8.
4. Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.
In this verse, Paul admits that an idol is nothing, and there is no real God but the true one. Meat offered to idols, then, is not really offered to a rival god, for no such god exists. One who eats such meat cannot really be worshiping another god, for there is no such other god. Yet Paul goes on to say in verse 7:
7. However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.
Though God has declared this, not everyone had come to know it or acknowledged it. Therefore, if someone who had not fully realized this ate food that was offered to an idol, his conscience would tell him he was worshiping another god, and thus he would be defiled by eating it.
8. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.
One is not really better for eating meat offered to idols, Paul argues, nor is one the worse for not eating them. This should not be a big deal for the one who realizes that the idol is nothing. He might realize it doesn’t really matter if he eats meat offered to idols, but this is not good if he forgets this and then makes a big deal out of the fact that he IS eating meat offered to idols. He has immediately forgotten that the whole point of his argument was that it doesn’t matter.
9. But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. 10. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? 11. And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?
Paul seems to present an amusing picture here. We might imagine one of the persons who doesn’t realize that idols are nothing walking innocently down the streets of Corinth. As he happens to pass the idol’s temple, he glances inside, and, behold! There is one of his believing brothers sitting at the idol’s table, tucking in his napkin and about to chow down! This flabbergasted but ignorant believer then ends up considering going into the idol’s temple to eat himself, thinking that by doing this he will be worshipping the idol. Is this really what the more knowledgeable believers want, Paul asks? Of course, none of these believers would actually sit down to eat in an idol’s temple, but by this extreme illustration the point is clearly made.
12. But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
This is Paul’s conclusion of the matter. If food makes his brother stumble, he will not eat it. This leaves it up to them and their care for their brothers. It does not condemn eating meat offered to idols, like Acts 15 does. Is this a contradiction?
The same goes for Romans 14:14. There, Paul declares:
14. I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
This says the same thing about clean and unclean foods as Paul said about idols in I Corinthians 8. These foods are not unclean in themselves, but if one considers a thing to be unclean and yet eats it, he is sinning, for he believes himself to be doing this in rebellion against God. Yet did not Acts 15 command keeping at least some of these laws when it forbade them to eat blood? Is this not a contradiction?
If this is not, then the next passage seems most clearly to be. In Titus 1:14-15, Paul urges Titus to be:
14. not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth. 15. To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.
Here, Paul declares as “unbelieving” all who do not count all things as “pure.” This is in light of “Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth.” Yet in the law, certain foods were declared to be impure or unclean. Does Paul want Titus to consider all such foods pure now? I believe the answer is yes, for in I Timothy, a book written at around the same time as Titus, Paul speaks of things he calls “doctrines of demons” in I Timothy 4:1-2. Here, he proclaims,
1. Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, 2. speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron,
This is quite an introduction, and leaves us wondering what these terrible teachings are which the Spirit is calling “doctrines of demons.” We discover the answer to this question in the next verse.
3. forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
The teachings of demons involve both forbidding marriage and commanding to abstain from certain foods. These foods, Paul reveals, are the very same ones which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. Yet surely this cannot include unclean meats, can it? For those were forbidden by God Himself in the Old Testament. The next verses go on to clarify this point for us.
4. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; 5. for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
The Spirit makes it clear to us that there are to be no exceptions to this because of Old Testament law. Every creature of God is good, He reveals, and so we are not to refuse any that are served as food if we will only receive them with thanksgiving. How is it, one might ask, that something God Himself had established in the law could be thus done away with, and things He once declared unclean now be declared clean? The next verse reveals this to us. These things are sanctified, it says. To be sanctified means to be set apart for special use, particularly set apart to God. And how are they set apart? By the word of God, we learn, and by prayer.
So we have passages in the New Testament that run the gamut seemingly from commanding to abstain from certain foods (Acts 15:29) to saying that certain foods may be eaten, but only if this does not make a weaker brother to stumble (I Corinthians 8:12-13,) to stating that all things are pure to the pure (Titus 1:15) and no creature God made is to be refused (I Timothy 4:4.) Is the New Testament not contradicting itself here? How are we to harmonize all these disparate statements and commands?
In order to understand what was going on in these different passages, it is extremely important that we understand the principle of right division. During the book of Acts, the message of salvation in Christ was at first to the “Jews only” (Acts 11:19). Then, as the Lord called Paul and commissioned him to go to the nations, the gospel was now “for the Jew first, and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Yet at the pivotal point of Acts 28:28, Paul standing before the Jewish leaders of Rome and speaking as God’s spokesman proclaimed that “the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!” This changed everything, as the Jews no longer had the gospel exclusively, nor did they have the privilege of being first. Now, all nations had equal access to God through the salvation found in Jesus Christ.
Yet this great change, though it made the salvation-bringing message of the gospel freely available to people of all nations, did not do the same with the religion that God had given Israel in Old Testament times. That religion was now put on hold, as the requirements of the law were nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14). Now, all were to find their completeness in Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:10,) not in the keeping of the law. As more and more Gentiles came to faith in the Lord Jesus, they were not to start keeping the commandments and ordinances they found in the Old Testament. Instead, they were to rejoice in the blessings they had received “in Christ” (Ephesians 1,) and strive to walk worthy of all He had already done for them (Ephesians 4:1.)
So in light of this change, we might expect passages on one side and on the other of this great change to exhibit different viewpoints, and for different commands to be given. Passages in one place and in another in the Bible certainly may contradict if they are speaking of different times, and if God is working in different ways in each of them. The fact that God changed His work and His program means that many things, like the eating of meats, would change when that new work began. Before that change, the commands given were for a time when the Jews had the priority. After that change, the commands given were for today, when all nations now have equal access to God.
In Acts 15, the issue of whether or not one had to keep the law of Moses to be saved was discussed before the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. The basic conclusion was that they did not have to. However, it seemed good to them, and to the Spirit along with them (verse 28), to bind four things on the believers. If those who did not keep the law did keep these four things, they could interact with the Jewish believers who were keeping the law, and those law-keepers would not have to worry about being defiled by contact with them. In other words, this was a provision to maintain unity among the believers, and to prevent them from becoming two factions: one that kept the law and one that did not.
I Corinthians was written to this major city in Greece. Idolatry was rampant in this city, and foods commonly sold in the marketplace were usually dedicated to some idol or other before the butcher even offered them for sale. The Jews, in their zeal for God, often refused to purchase or consume such meat. However, as God points out through Paul, these idols were not really gods at all, but just the work of men’s imagination. If one ate food dedicated to them, one was not really eating food dedicated to a rival god, for that god did not actually exist. If they realized this, they were free to eat such meat, knowing that they weren’t honoring an idol at all. However, many Jews would have trouble with this, having been taught their whole lives not to eat food offered to idols. If they were enticed to eat such food, they WOULD see it as honoring a rival god, and this would defile their conscience. It would be better for them to inconvenience themselves and not eat food from the common marketplace, Paul concludes, than to defile the conscience of even one of their brothers. This was not a command. It was simply love and consideration for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.
Romans was written before the change at Acts 28:28, when the Jews were still first (Romans 1:16.) Yet outside the land of Israel, no one, not even a Jew, could really keep all the commandments of the law, for these were tailor-made to be kept in the land of Israel. This resulted in a situation where some were keeping some parts of the law, while others were keeping others. This resulted in much disputing and quarreling over what God would have them to do regarding the law. Yet Paul had given the message in Acts 13:38-39, “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” This meant that Jews outside the land no longer had to consider it that they were obligated to keep the law at all. They could eat only clean foods, or eat all foods. They could observe the holidays God gave Israel, or they could not observe them. God had declared them free from all such laws, and able to serve Him without fear.
Now this did not mean every one could do what was right in his own eyes. In fact, when they believed in Christ, they had come under the control of the Kingdom of God, and His government now had a right to tell them what to do. What it had ruled is set forth in I Corinthians 7:18-20.
18. Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. 19. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. 20. Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called.
The rule here is that they are to remain as they were when they were called to faith in Christ. If they were called while being circumcised and keeping what parts of the law they could, they were to continue to keep those parts, trusting Christ to forgive them for the parts they could not keep. If, on the other hand, they were called while having given up on circumcision or keeping the law, they were not to start keeping these things once they came to faith in Christ. This resulted in a situation where some ate certain foods, and some did not. Some kept the feast days, and some did not keep them. This could lead to discord between those who kept these laws and those who did not. Paul urges them in Romans 14 not to allow such discord to arise. They are not to despise those who are doing the opposite of what they are doing. Rather, they are to live for the Lord, no matter what their actions regarding keeping the law might be.
By the time Paul wrote I Timothy and Titus, the great change at Acts 28:28 had already taken place. Part of that change was the setting aside of all food laws for all, both those who had formerly kept the law and those who did not. All believers were now required to believe that all foods were pure, and nothing was to be refused on religious grounds. To refuse to believe this was to refuse to have faith in the word of God. As Paul said in Titus, this would result in all foods being considered impure. One who refused to accept that all foods were clean and continued to keep certain dietary laws was unbelieving regarding this word, and therefore even his “clean” foods were defiled in God’s sight. To one who believed, however, all foods were now clean because of his faith. That is what Paul is setting forth in Titus 1.
While God was very conciliatory toward the weak believer in I Corinthians and Romans, once the dispensation changed, He seems to have drawn a line in the sand. Commanding to abstain from foods is now a doctrine of demons, and a failure to be thankful for what God has provided for the enjoyment of His children. The word of God on this, even as it is given in I Timothy 4, sets apart all foods. If any have further qualms, let them pray for God to accept their food, for He declares that prayer sanctifies foods as well. Yet He now is calling upon them to believe and leave behind the rules of the law altogether.
This latter attitude might seem rather harsh, but remember that faith in the word of God is always what He has demanded of His people. It is faith that truly pleases Him, and, as Hebrews 11:6 declares, “without faith it is impossible to please Him.” God desires faith in His Word from all His people, and when Titus and I Timothy were written, that is what He demanded of them regarding food.
So sometimes what appears to be a contradiction in Scripture is actually a difference between different works God was doing at different times. Things were changing rapidly in New Testament times, as God moved from having worked primarily with Israel for over a fifteen hundred years to working with all nations equally, as He does today. During the book of Acts and books written during that time, His focus was still primarily on Israel, and different rules applied then than apply to today. To mix up what He said about foods then with what He says about them now may appear to be a contradiction, but it is actually a difference illustrating the change that took place at the end of the book of Acts. If we want to understand these things, we need to come to fully understand that change, and realize its implications. Only then can we avoid causing Scripture to contradict itself through our own lack of knowledge.