If you believe the Bible, then why do you eat shrimp?
Gotcha! That is usually the response of most atheists when they ask the above question because most Christians are hard pressed to answer it biblically. I confess, on the spot, I struggle answering it as well.
The implied accusation is that Christians don’t really believe the Bible because they eat shell fish, or shrimp, which the Old Testament dietary Laws prohibit.
Atheists love playing off our ignorance. Don’t get me wrong. They are ignorant too. But their ignorance is damnable. Ours is just sad and we need to work to clarify our understanding of the Law.
Please don’t think that I want you debating the atheists on this issues. That may not be your calling. But as a brother or sister in the LORD, I do want you to understand that that the dietary Laws have been set aside, by both Christ and the Apostles.
Now, the argument with the atheist usually goes as follows: They ask if you believe in the Bible. Once you say yes, then they will say, “do you eat shellfish?” The implication is that if you do believe in the Bible, why do you eat shell fish? The command they are referring to is in Leviticus 11:10
‘These you may eat of all that are in the water: whatever in the water has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers—that you may eat. But all in the seas or in the rivers that do not have fins and scales, all that move in the water or any living thing which is in the water, they are an abomination to you. They shall be an abomination to you; you shall not eat their flesh, but you shall regard their carcasses as an abomination. …
Please note that the food itself wasn’t an abomination. But it was an abomination for the Jews to eat the food. The LORD was telling them that the food was off limits, just as He told Adam that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was off limits. The Jewish people are a type of Adam.
There is more to it than that. The laws were intended to separate the Jews from the Gentiles, reminding them that they were holy unto the LORD. This really helped keep the young Jewish boys from going after young Gentile girls. The laws were so drilled into their culture that when the young Gentile girl invited the young Jewish boy over for diner, the Jewish boy was suddenly faced with the reality that by eating the food of the Gentile, he would become unclean, and be cut off from the covenant-keeping community (also known as excommunication). This was a serious consequence for his disobedience.
The goal behind this was to help keep the covenant-keeping people inside the covenant, with God. When the young man goes after the Gentile woman, he will not only be tempted to eat that which has been declared an abomination for him, but also to worship the gods of the Gentiles, which is idolatry. The dietary laws were given to help prevent idolatry.
Just to be clear: idolatry is having a god other than the living and true God. We see this mostly today in people who don’t really worship the Triune God of Scripture, but a god of their own making.
The point to the dietary, or separation laws was to help the Jews remain true to YHWH. The laws were guard rails to keep them on the narrow path.
You may not like that reality, but it drives home the point: those who are of God’s covenant-keeping community are to be holy, they are to be clean, they are to be set apart. They are not to look or live like the world.
One might ask: what about the Gentile girl? Was she forever doomed? No, she and her family were to join the Israelites in their faith and practice, not the other way around.
That is the background for the dietary codes of the Mosaic covenant.
So what has changed?
The coming of Christ brought about the institution of the New Covenant, a more glorious covenant than the Mosaic covenant. Under the New Covenant, the signs and seals of the holy people of God have changed. For example, both the bloody signs of the covenant, known as Passover and circumcision, have been replaced by bloodless signs: the sacraments of baptism (replacing circumcision) and communion (replacing the Passover). Both the new signs are bloodless in that they point back to Christ’s fulfillment of the earlier signs showing that there is no longer a need for shed blood. The new signs signify the same as the old, but show forth a better covenant in Christ.
I hope you see that things have changed under the New Covenant. This doesn’t mean that God has set aside the Law, especially the moral component summarized in the Ten Commandments. Christ speaks to this issue of setting aside and shows us that the Law will not pass away.
And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than it is for one tittle of the law to fail, Luke 16:17.
The Law is still in play and still useful in three ways. First, it is used as a mirror in our own lives to show us our sinfulness before a holy and just God, driving us to Christ. Secondly, it is used as a restraint in society, warning mankind of a day of justice ahead. (This is why the removal of the Ten Commandments from the public square has been so pursued by the godless. They want no reminder of the coming day of judgment). Third, the Law is the Christians guide on how we are to live. The Law is a pleasing thing to the LORD, so we do not set it aside simply because we are in Christ.
With this we see the Law’s usefulness. But where exactly do we see the laying aside of the dietary codes? Or a better question might be: why do we have to know all this to answer the question about shellfish?
This is why so many Christians struggle with the answer to the question. It is complicated. It is meant to be. We are to work to give our full attention to understanding God’s word. It’s not easy to do so (and impossible without the Spirit opening our eyes to the truth).
Christ Changes the Law
That said, let’s get back to the setting aside of the dietary/separation laws.
We get the first glimpse that something might change when Christ declares that it’s not what a man puts in his mouth that defiles a man. He does this in Matthew 15, when the Pharisees confront Him about the disciples not washing their hands before they eat.
Jesus introduces a paradigm shift to the topic. He declares that what we eat, doesn’t defile us. NEWS FLASH: it’s not the pork that makes us unclean (bacon lovers everywhere are rejoicing).
In fact, He makes it clear that defilement comes from the heart, our hearts.
Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? 18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. 19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies (Matthew 15:17-19).
This was a paradigm shift for the Jews because so much of their religion was outward and observable. The problem with that is that it allows one to go through the motions of the sacrifices, the festivals, keeping the dietary/separation laws, but still not believe any of it.
Just before His statement above, He also declared:
‘These people [a]draw near to Me with their mouth,
And honor Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.
9 And in vain they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ” Matthew 15:8-9
Jesus is removing much of what had become performance-based religion. Anyone can go through the motions of religion without actually dealing with the real issues of wicked desires found in the heart. This is where the focus of the Law was to be. It wasn’t just a guard rail to help us stay on the narrow path, but meant to be used to help us see how far we come from having any righteousness of our own.
If I boast in not eating shellfish, and keeping the Levitical law, I may seem pious and righteous. But I’m not. In keeping any of the Law, we cannot boast, for then we are doing only as we should have done.
For example, the famous golfer Bobby Jones reported tapping the ball during a major tournament, adding another stroke to his game and costing him the victory. No one else saw him tap the ball, and officials were reluctant to accept the penalty shot. But Jones insisted.
“You’re to be congratulated Mr. Jones,” the official said. Jones responded saying, “Sir, that is like congratulating a man for not robbing a bank. I don’t know how else to play the game.”
Whenever we keep God’s Law, we are simply doing as we should and there is no reason for boasting.
But given that the Laws cannot convert the heart, many of the Jews became proud in the areas of their obedience.
Christ Instructs Peter
We see this pride with Peter in Acts 10. There, Cornelius, who is a believing Gentile, has been told to seek out Peter for better understanding. Therefore, the LORD gives Peter a vision from heaven while in a trance.
(Peter) saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
The list of animals clearly indicate those that are called “unclean.” The LORD is telling him to rise, kill and eat, even those things which are not considered clean. Peter’s response is one of pride.
“Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.”
His pride causes him to argue with the LORD. Instead of responding in humility, being obedient to the commands given, he declares his own righteousness. So the LORD tells him three times, in order to stress the point.
“What God has cleansed you must not call common.”
The main point of the passage is that Peter needed to learn that the gospel was going to the Gentiles. God was making them clean. But for this to take place, God needed to make it clear to the disciples that He was setting aside the dietary/separation Laws of the Old Testament, so that the disciples could take the gospel to the Gentiles in good conscience.
The LORD put the separation Laws in place so that the Jews would not mix with the Gentiles, and under the New Covenant, removes those same Laws so that they would mix with the Gentiles.
This was a monumental revelation to the first generation Christians. God was bringing about a mystery, which Paul tells us about in Ephesians 2-3. In that letter, he declares this mystery to us: Jews and Gentiles are made one new man in Christ.
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation (this includes the dietary laws), 15 having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, 16 and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. 18 For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.
But again, for this to happen, the dietary laws needed to be set aside. The LORD was no longer seeking to keep the people of God bound by such Laws, but was bringing them together through a much greater covenant, the New Covenant, through the gospel of Christ.
After all, where the Law was weak, the gospel was not. It is the power unto salvation for both the Jew and the Greek (Romans 1:16-17).
When We Shouldn’t Eat
But there is more to this. Paul does acknowledge that there are things we should not eat, not in conjunction with the dietary laws, which he could very well have restated in making his case, but he chooses not to. The reason that Paul gives that we should abstain from eating meat is if that meat has been dedicated to an idol, and by eating it we will cause another Christian to fall away from the faith and follow the idol. So the issue isn’t separation, as it was in the Old Testament, but a matter of conscience.
But if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” 29 “Conscience,” I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience? (1 Corinthians 10:28-29).
The point here is that we do not eat if someone else might stumble and leave the faith. However, it does not apply to those who are merely offended that we eat meat. Abstaining from eating meat is only a gospel issue if the person might fall away because of it.
Paul has already given permission to eat meat freely from the market.
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; 26 for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” (1 Corinthians 10:25-26).
So he isn’t giving the warning about eating meat to appease our modern vegans/vegetarians, etc. He is doing so for the sake of the Christian who might be tempted to return to idolatry over the use of meat that was sacrificed to that idol.
Paul even shows that we have the freedom to dine with those who are unbelievers, and eat what they eat. This too was a reversal of the dietary Laws, which prevented faithful Jews from eating with Gentiles at all.
If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake (1 Corinthians 10:27).
Notice the focus is the non-believer in this verse. We are to go to their homes if invited, and if we desire to do so, and we are to eat whatever is set before us. The dietary Laws, if they were still to be kept, would prevent this freedom, a freedom we are to have in reaching the lost.
When We Can Eat
Finally, in a direct statement, Paul shows that every creature is good, and is not to be refused if we receive it with thanksgiving (bacon lovers everywhere are again rejoicing).
4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; 5 for it is [b]sanctified by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5).
This is in the context of dealing with deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons… (who) were 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.
So those who do call for us to abstain outside of what Paul has given us are actually under the influence of demons, not the Spirit of God. This should not surprise us. The Devil is always taking God’s word and applying it in the exact opposite way that it was intended to be applied. Both marriage and food have been given to us by the LORD to enjoy. For someone to claim that we should abstain as matters of religion are not following God’s word.
Hopefully you can see that when the atheists asks us the above question, that he does so out of ignorance. What it takes for us to have a proper understanding of our freedoms in Christ, is a continual study of God’s word. The atheist will not do so. They are merely looking for ways to attack believers and belittle them.
Don’t be fooled. The dietary Laws of the Old Testament have been set aside and we have perfect freedom to enjoy a good steak with some shrimp on the side. These things are a blessing from the LORD, given to us to enjoy. I don’t expect those who read this article to be able to reproduce it on the spot when an atheist attacks. But you can remember one or two of the above verses to go over with the atheist while you have him over for steak and shrimp. Better yet, let him invite you over for steak and shrimp and you provide the spiritual food.
This article and photos are copyright © Timothy J. Hammons 2021.