Dietary Laws and the Gospel

It is late January, which means that many find themselves in the tougher portions of the Pentateuch in their daily Bible reading schedules. Each year Christians set out to read through the Bible in a year. Expectations are set and excitement runs high. But it is not long into the reading program the reader commences the book of Leviticus. Starting with laws pertaining to the various offerings the reader enters a world that seems far and distant from his own. We find little to immediately encourage our walk with the Lord and so the temptation to skip over the book or move to the New Testament increases. When reading the New Testament, we discover that the Levitical laws seem not only to be far from our own world, but also far from the New Testament world. Christ’s coming into to the world to sacrificially die is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant sacrificial system. Christ commands Peter to eat animals once considered unclean (Acts 10:9-16) to reinforce the fact that the Gentiles were now not considered ceremonially unclean. If what we find in Leviticus has passed away, then it is determined that there must be no more relevance for the believer today. While Leviticus may appear to be irrelevant upon a surface reading, a deeper look not only into the book itself, but also into the canon of Scripture will reveal the importance of Leviticus. Leviticus contributes much to the theology of the Bible and to the life of the Christian in any generation.

The writers of the New Testament understood the significance of Leviticus for a proper understanding of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. The New Testament quotes Leviticus seventeen times and alludes to it over a hundred times. Leviticus to a biblical understanding of important theological terms: holy, holiness, sanctify, clean, unclean, priest, guilt, etc. Not only does Leviticus develop important terms, it also contributes to theological themes, such as separation and holiness, fellowship of believers, Christ’s atonement, and the indwelling presence of God by his Spirit.

Once one recognizes the importance of Leviticus to theological themes in the Bible, the difficulties of the book do not end. It is one thing to consider broad theological themes; it is quite another to see how particulars contribute to those themes. Such is the case with the holiness codes of Leviticus 11-15. The holiness codes address matters of diet (chapter 11), childbirth (chapter 12), disease (chapters 13-14), and bodily discharges (chapter 15). The present post focuses on the dietary laws of chapter 11 and will show how these laws contribute to Leviticus, to the theology of the Bible, and point to Jesus Christ. Leviticus may appear to have little to say to the Christian in the twenty-first century and it may intimidate the preacher who wants to preach the whole counsel of God. Yet, Leviticus instructs all believers in the importance of holiness, the necessity of thinking about how all of life is lived before God, and it encourages the preacher and listener alike that hope is found in Jesus Christ, the holy and spotless Lamb of God.

Context of the Dietary Laws

The ritual purity laws are located in the center of the Leviticus. They follow the laws pertaining to the mediating sacrificial system and the mediating office of the priesthood (chapters 1-10). Instructions regarding the Day of Atonement immediately follow the ritual purity laws (chapter 16). Leviticus concludes with more detailed holiness codes in chapters 17-27. The placement of the dietary laws provides clues as to their significance and contribution, especially when the theological theme of Leviticus is considered.

The main theme of Leviticus is holiness. This broad theme is developed throughout the book in various ways and it acts as an overarching principle behind all the specific laws given by God to his covenant people. The theme of holiness in Leviticus focuses upon Israel’s relationship and activity before God. The rationale is God’s own holiness. Because God is holy, his people are to be holy. This refrain to “be holy, for I am holy” occurs twice in chapter 11 (vv. 44 and 45). Whatever might be said regarding the food laws, it is clear at this point that there is a responsive obligation of God’s people to be holy because he is holy. That this obligation is given to Israel and not other nations is a direct result of God’s calling of Israel and deliverance of them from bondage to be his peculiar and treasured people. Because of the nature of God, any enjoyment of presence with him demands holiness. This is the nature of the holiness theme in Leviticus.

God’s act of redemption and powerful protection of Israel from her enemies moved Moses to recognize that Yahweh is without peers. He is distinct. His holiness is not limited to purity, but comprehensive of all God is. His very being, power, and greatness is without comparison. At the heart of this incomparable nature of God is his distinctness, or his separateness. This distinctness extends to Israel, as they are the people whom God separated from all the other nations (Leviticus 20:26). This moves the reader closer to seeing how the dietary laws of Leviticus contribute to the theme of holiness. If God is holy and has called Israel to himself to live in covenant communion and fellowship with him, then it follows that this calling and fellowship will directly influence their behavior before him in all areas of life. They are not to live as the other nations live precisely because they have been called out from the nations in covenant with God. The dietary laws of the Old Testament even had a practical dimension to them to help the Old Covenant Church realize her separateness from the nations. As David Gooding noted:

These food laws had an immediate practical effect: they made social mixing with Gentile nations difficult, since Israelites could not eat Gentile food. This would not only reinforce the fact that Israel was a special nation, but also act as a constant reminder that Israel was to avoid the moral and spiritual uncleanness of the Gentiles.1

The relationship of Israel with God involves God’s presence with Israel. Divine presence, therefore, serves as a sub-theme of holiness in Leviticus. This presence motif explains the first ten chapters of Leviticus. If there is to be the enjoyment of God’s divine presence there must be mediation. Sinful humanity cannot come into God’s presence without sacrifice and without a representative. This idea of divine presence continues to narrow down the way in which the laws of Leviticus are implemented. Enjoyment of God’s presence involves mediation (1-10) and comprehensive holiness (11-27). With the theme of holiness guiding the overall message of the book and the necessity of the mediated ministry of the priesthood the ritual purity laws begin to show their relevance, not only to Israel, but also to Christians today. The original audience would have understood that the ritual laws of purity were intimately connected to God’s holiness and their life before him.

Interpreting the Dietary Laws

Explanations for the puzzling dietary laws are varied and commentators have not reached a consensus on which interpretation best captures the rationale for all of the ritual purity laws in Leviticus. Some of the views hone in on one particular explanation, but fail to provide a basis for the whole. The more common explanations for the dietary laws are as follows: the hygienic view, the allegorical view (ritual laws are pictures of holiness versus evil), the comprehensive wholeness view, and the cultic view. Each of these views has something to offer to better our understanding of the dietary laws, but do not always offer a rationale for what is behind the laws.

One particular view that incorporates the theological themes of the book and the placement of the ritual purity laws when seeking to determine the complexity and perplexing nature of the laws is the discernment view. This view acknowledges the valid elements of others, but recognizes that none can provide an explanation for all of the ritual purity laws. It highlights that idea that God wants his people to think and to discern in all areas of life, even what is put into our bodies. After all, we are called to glorify God even in our eating and drinking.

Factoring in a broad discernment principle in Leviticus as a backdrop to the laws, the reader can come to a place of confidence when reading the details of the book. The discernment view is established around the principle found in Leviticus 10:10-11, And that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean; And that ye may teach the children of Israel all that statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses. Immediately after the command to the priests to distinguish and teach, the reader begins the section on the ritual purity laws and the holiness codes. While the discernment view does not offer an explanation about what is clean or unclean, it provides a hermeneutical process by which to interpret the laws, even the dietary laws. This fits consistently with the theme of holiness, the importance of mediation and the priests’ responsibility to teach, and the whole covenant community’s responsibility to think through all aspects of life and discern what is pleasing to God.

Sanctification, Discernment, and Liberty

Holiness is of utmost importance to God and to his people if they are to enjoy him. In considering the dietary laws the overall emphasis of Leviticus and the significance of the dietary laws themselves can be lost when seeks only to try and decide why a particular thing is clean or unclean. God’s desire is that his people make distinctions in order to remain holy and enjoy his presence. Rhett Dodson establishes this succinctly when he states, “God was not interested in keeping His people from certain foods because of something inherent in the foods. Rather, God was intent on teaching them to use His law and apply it in a discerning, discriminating manner and thus strive for cleanness and a proper walk with Him.”

Even though the dietary laws were abolished when Christ came and accomplished his work, God still intends his people to discern and to think through all areas of life and how it affects their walk with Him. In this way there is almost an irony to the dietary laws. Rather than being legalistic, they provide an opportunity where his people could freely eat what was clean in order to liberally enjoy his presence. If the saints in the old covenant could enjoy God’s presence by discerning matters of holiness, how much more can believers in the new covenant enjoy God’s presence now that Christ has ascended and sent the Spirit! The theological ramifications of the ritual purity laws on truths of sanctification, discernment, and liberty are far reaching. The abolishment of old covenant ritual laws does not abrogate the Christian’s responsibility to think. Nor does it mean that it doesn’t matter what the Christian does. Instead, the believer can rely on the ministry of Christ dwelling in him by the Spirit and the written Word to have all that is needed to discern the things of this life.

The Person and Work of Christ

The dietary laws also point to the Person and finished work of Jesus Christ. It is not surprising that Moses discusses the Day of Atonement in between the ritual purity laws of chapters 11-15 and the holiness codes of chapters 17-27. Both follow the first section of the book that highlights the need for sacrifices and priests. It would not have taken long for the Israelites to be reminded of their sin and need for a mediator. The Day of Atonement came as a means of hope for the Israelites. They looked forward to the day where there would be a sacrifice once and for all.

There are two facets of the person and work of Christ that are foreshadowed by Leviticus. The first is Christ’s work of humiliation in dealing with sin. The second is the necessity of pure redeemer. Leviticus 11-15 highlights the pervasive and inescapable nature of sin. God tells Aaron to remove the priestly garments when he embarks upon that work of atonement (Lev. 16:4). Aaron pointed to that greater priest, Jesus Christ. The eternal Son of God left the glories of heaven to take upon humanity and walk this world as the Man of Sorrows. For Christ to deal with sin he endured humiliation that culminated in his suffering upon the cross.

The one who came to deal finally and fully with sin could not just be anyone, he must be pure. Hebrews draws the comparisons and points to the contrasts between the priesthood of Aaron and that of Christ. Aaron first had to sacrifice for his own sins and then for the peoples’ sin. Christ was pure, holy, harmless, undefiled, clean, and separate from sinners. Jesus alone can rid us from all uncleanness and make us clean. What a thought, especially after reading the ritual laws of Leviticus.


1. David Gooding, True to the Faith p. 163

Recommended Resources

Tim Keller "Old Testament Law and the Charge of Inconsistency

Rhett Dodson, Discerning Truths of Holiness: The Theology and Message of Leviticus 11-15

Allen Ross, Holiness to the Lord

Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus

Nick Batzig "A Biblical Theology of Food and Drink


Charles M. Barrett serves as Assistant Minister at Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Signal Mountain, TN.

Charles Barrett