by Dalton Adger
I have been a resident of Louisiana my entire 23 years of existence. I grew up in the Shreveport area, which many of our Cajun counterparts consider an extension of Texas masquerading as Louisiana. But even in the part of our state that has been deemed “Yankee-country” by some southern statesmen, we like to eat crawfish.
I haven’t been a Christian for as long as I have been a native of Louisiana. However, my identity as a follower of Christ is much more important to me than my state citizenship. As a Louisianian I love to attend crawfish boils and eat to my heart’s content. But as a Christian, am I a hypocrite for enjoying this cultural cuisine? After all, Leviticus 11:12 forbids consumption of any marine animal without “fins and scales,” calling such creatures “detestable.” When churches host crawfish boils, are they doing so in direct contradiction to the Word of God that they claim to believe wholly?
The reason for this blog post is to address the question of God’s law found in the Old Testament. Why do so many Christians eat shellfish and pork, order their steaks rare, wear clothes with different types of thread woven together, and even have tattoos when the Bible forbids these things in the Old Testament law? As a lover of crawfish, bacon, and rare steak who has tattoos and wears shirts made of multiple materials, am I blatantly disobeying God?
Many agnostics, atheists, or non-Christians in general have pointed to these verses as inconsistencies within our faith. Many believers have responded to these objections with a claim similar to the following- “That is the Old Testament; it doesn’t apply to us.” This answer, along with the question in the first place, demonstrates a vital misunderstanding of the relationship between the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Christian. The Old Testament very much applies to us today and yet there is no hypocrisy inherent in a church crawfish boil. How could this be the case?
Here are three points to keep in mind.
1. The Old Testament should not be ignored or dismissed.
I cringe when I hear Christians with good intentions imply or even directly state that the Old Testament does not apply to us. The common idea is that the New Testament replaced the Old Testament. Or it is at least not as important as the Old Testament. Even many pastors seem to believe this. They may not say it, but actions speak louder than words, and the fact of the matter is that most pulpits focus on the New Testament 90% of the time when the Old Testament is 75% of what we call the Bible. The impression that the average church member receives is that the New Testament deserves a lot more attention than the Old Testament, and as long as you read Genesis, Proverbs, and a few Psalms every once in a while, you probably have a good balance. This is wrong, and it should not be practiced or preached.
The Old Testament is vitally important. It is the only Bible that Jesus read on Earth, it is the Bible from which the apostles preached, and without the Old Testament there would be no New Testament. You are probably familiar with 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (it is New Testament, after all).
All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. HCSB
The first two words we see there are “all Scripture.” All means all. It certainly means the Old Testament, which Paul, the author of 2 Timothy, had been reading all of his life. All means the prophets, major and minor, of the Old Testament even if they are hard understand. All means Song of Songs, even if all of that heated romantic talk makes you blush. All means every genealogy in our Bibles, and there are a lot of them. All means the books of the Chronicles and the Kings, even if they seem repetitive at times. All means all. It is all there for a purpose. God, in His sovereignty, inspired human authors to write every bit of it. As one of the pastors of First Baptist Church of Pollock, I want every member at our church to have a high view of Scripture, and that certainly includes the Old Testament.
The longest chapter in all of Scripture is Psalm 119. You know what it is about? Scripture. Different terms are used, such as God’s law, instruction, word, etc. But the entire chapter is about the benefit the Bible has for God’s people and the Psalmist’s love for it. To dismiss the Old Testament by claiming it doesn’t apply to us anymore or to ignore it by only spending time in the New Testament cheapens 75% of what we Christians claim to be the actual Word of God. We have to come up with a more sufficient answer than that. It shouldn’t be surprising that the sufficient answer is found in the Bible itself.
2. Let Scripture interpret Scripture.
When we eat crawfish and don’t sacrifice animals, it isn’t because we are picking and choosing which parts of God’s law to follow. Throughout redemptive history, God’s revelation to His people was progressive. In other words, humans didn’t have the whole Word of God until the Bible was completed with the book of Revelation. So we would expect that parts of the Bible that are written later would shift and mold the understanding of parts that were written earlier. For example, from the beginning we see that there is a plurality within God. In Genesis 1:26, when man is created, God says “let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” The plurality of God is there, but it remains a bit of a mystery. This mystery is fleshed out in the New Testament, which affirms the Old Testament truth that there is one God, but also demonstrates that He exists as three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This understanding sheds light on the verse in Genesis (and other similar Old Testament verses) and gives us a fuller understanding.
In the same way, the New Testament sheds light on the Old Testament law and reveals that not every law was meant for all people, everywhere, throughout time. Historically, Christians have understood God’s Old Testament law to be separated into three different categories- moral law, ceremonial law, and judicial/civil law. Although the Bible never labels them in these categories, the distinctions between these types of laws are clear.
Judicial/Civil Law- Ancient Israel’s Governing Rule
In the Mosaic covenant, these types of laws are given in order for the nation of Israel to be governed. This sort of law includes penalties for crimes, regulations for business transactions, and guidelines for a range of things, from plowing a field to interacting with foreign travelers.
A plain reading of this law makes it clear that it was never intended to be applied to all people everywhere, but was specific to that nation. This is why, when we read the civil law and see that the penalty for idolatry is stoning, we don’t have the right as Christians to stone idolaters. The moral law, which will be addressed later, teaches us that idolatry is sinful. But the capital punishment for idolatry in the civil law is not used now. Why? That law doesn’t apply to us. I don’t live in ancient Israel, I live in modern day America, and we have our own civil laws.
Jesus, in his sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7), quotes several civil laws and corrects the misapplication of those laws. Perhaps the clearest example is in Matthew 5:38-39. Jesus quotes the judicial law from Exodus 21:24 that states “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for tooth.” In contrast, Jesus says that we should not respond to wrong committed against us with vengeance. Rather, if someone slaps us on the right cheek, we should “turn the other to him also.” This is a prime example of a judicial law, one that was about punishment fitting the crime in a system of government, being misapplied to try and justify personal revenge on others. The point here is that Jesus was not discrediting the civil law, or picking and choosing what he wanted from the Old Testament, but he understood how the law was meant to be applied.
Trying to apply the judicial/civil laws now would be like a police officer trying to write me a ticket for going 75 miles per hour on I-49 in Louisiana (which is the speed limit) because the speed limit for four lane highways 20 years ago in Delaware was 55 miles per hour. When I don’t stone every homosexual or idol worshipper I meet, it is not because I’m picking and choosing what parts of the Bible I believe, but because the Bible itself indicates that those sorts of penalties were for the government of ancient Israel to exact upon those who broke the law.
Ceremonial Law- The Shadow of Christ
Where the civil law was primarily concerned with how the people of Israel related to one another, the ceremonial law was primarily concerned with how the people of Israel related to God. The civil law stood to structure their government. The ceremonial law stood to structure their religion. Involved in this law were regulations for priests, the temple, worship practices, and sacrificial ceremonies. These laws were in place to give the people access to their God.
Also as a part of this law were ways for God to set apart Israel as distinctively His people. They were prohibited from eating certain foods that the other nations enjoyed. They were prohibited from wearing certain clothes that the other nations adorned. They were circumcised, the other nations kept their foreskin. The point was they were not supposed to be like the pagan, idol worshipping, child-sacrificing nations around them. It is worth noting that many of these laws that seem silly to us today actually had to do with making sure the Israelites were not emulating the pagan worship practices of the cultures around them. When the book of Leviticus condemns certain cloths being sewn together, beards being cut certain ways, and tattoos, it isn’t because God is concerned with fashion. Those things were a part of cultic practices of idolaters in that time. The point of the ceremonial law was to set Israel apart as distinctively God’s while also giving them a way to have relationship with Him.
Why don’t we practice this ceremonial law today? Well the book of Hebrews lets us know that the practices of the ceremonial law were put in place to point to Christ as the true way to access God. Hebrews 10:1 says that all of these things (the ceremonial law) were a shadow of the good things to come. When you look at a shadow, you see a distorted and partial glimpse of whatever is creating the shadow. When we look at the ceremonial law, Hebrews tells us that it is a partial glimpse at the reality of Christ. Now that Christ has come and fulfilled the law, we don’t need to look to the shadow anymore. We don’t need priests because Jesus is our priest who gains us access to the Father. We don’t need a temple anymore because God’s presence dwells in those who have turned to Christ. We don’t need to sacrifice animals anymore because the atoning sacrifice of Christ was made once and for all.
I want to specifically address the food portion of the ceremonial law, so if you are only skimming this article to see if you can keep eating crawfish, here is where you need to pay attention. In Acts chapter 10, Peter has a vision three times of a large sheet that contained all of the animals of the world, including what Jews were forbidden by ceremonial law to eat. In this vision, Peter is commanded by God to kill and eat these animals. Peter defies this command with good reason- the law states that he cannot eat unclean animals and he wants to obey God’s Word. But the key verse is verse 15, where the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”
The purpose of this vision is to represent the gospel being available to the Gentiles, as indicated by Peter then going to preach to a group of Gentiles who are then saved. But what we learn from this is that the ceremonial law that included cultural and ethnic distinctions, including what foods to eat, is no longer what set God’s people apart. The Gentiles were saved. They received the Holy Spirit (v. 44). That is what sets apart the church, who are God’s people, and the rest of the world. We receive new hearts and new desires and are no longer spiritually dead in our depravity.
The Gentiles that were saved didn’t have to start obeying the ceremonial laws and give up the food they had been eating their whole lives because God indicated in the vision He gave Peter that He has made Gentiles, including their food, clean. They didn’t have to follow the ceremonial law and be circumcised either, which is made clear at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Under the New Covenant we relate to God through Christ and we are set apart by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That has taken the place of the ceremonial law, and once again, this isn’t something Christians came up with to explain why we eat crawfish and don’t sacrifice lambs anymore. The Scripture indicates that the ceremonial law doesn’t apply to us.
Moral Law- Right and Wrong
Finally, we arrive at the moral law. The moral law is simply what God has deemed right and wrong. The moral law is best summed up in the 10 Commandments. The civil law doesn’t apply to us anymore because we aren’t under that system of government. The ceremonial law doesn’t apply to us anymore because it was a shadow of Christ. In the same way that Scripture indicates to us that these no longer apply, Scripture also indicates that the moral law does.
In fact, Romans 2:16 states that the law of God is written on every heart. Because every person is made in the image of God, we have this law stamped on us internally from our very conception. This is why we all know murder is wrong. But if that is the case, then why did God feel the need to put it in writing for us? Well, because in our sinful depravity, we twist that law that is on our hearts, we ignore that law that is on our hearts, and we break that law that is on our hearts. And we try to justify ourselves while we do it. God gives us the 10 commandments and lists upon lists throughout both the Old and New Testament to affirm what we already know in our hearts- we constantly do wrong and enjoy our wrongdoing when we are lost in our sin.
The reason we still apply this law today, unlike the ceremonial and civil laws, is because this law is concerned with right and wrong. This is rooted in God’s character. God’s character does not change, therefore what is right and wrong does not change. This is why it was wrong for Cain to murder Abel even though the 10 commandments hadn’t been given yet. This is why the New Testament still calls murder a sin. The New Testament constantly affirms that what God plainly states is wrong morally in the Old Testament will always be wrong. Sin is sin. Unlike the civil and ceremonial law, there is never any indication in the Bible that right and wrong has changed. The accusation that we cherry pick the commands we want to obey is an unfounded slight against Christians because we have always stood on Scripture to tell us which laws still stand. The moral law is that law.
3. We should view the Old Testament through a gospel lens.
I have worn glasses for over a year now. My eyesight isn’t terrible without glasses, but it is imperfect enough that before I got them, I would squint to read road signs or watch TV and I would get headaches. The thing is I didn’t even know my vision was bad until a friend asked me why I was squinting all the time. When I went to the eye doctor and got glasses, the problem I didn’t even know I had was fixed. I saw clearly when before I didn’t realize that anything was blurry.
When we read the Old Testament, we should do so with gospel glasses on our face. We should be looking through the lens of the gospel of Christ. This means that when we read any part of the law, we should ask ourselves- how does this fit in with the gospel story? What does this have to do with the fact that all humans are sinners separated from God, that God the Son came to the earth and lived a perfect life, died on the cross as our atonement for sin, and was risen three days later? What does this have to do with the fact that anyone who repents of his sin by faith and receives the grace of God will be saved?
When we look at the moral law of God, we see from the gospel that we have all broken it. When we look at the ceremonial law of God, we see that this has separated us from God and we need atonement to be made for our sin if we want relationship with Him. When we look at the civil law, we see that the righteous judgment over our sin is death. All of these aspects of the law teach us that we are sinners who, if left in our sin, would be condemned to an eternal separation from God, which is eternal death. This is a huge problem. When we put on our gospel lenses, we see that Jesus Christ is the answer to that problem.
If we are in Christ, the penalty for our sin was paid by Him on the cross. Because He is now risen, He can give eternal, spiritual life to those who deserve eternal, spiritual death. Included in this eternal life is a new heart, one indwelt with the Holy Spirit, which enables us to follow God’s moral law. And when we do that imperfectly, we can approach the throne of God’s grace with boldness, not through ceremonial law practices, but through Christ, our mediator. We are distinguished from the cultures around us, not because we abstain from shellfish and pork, but because our lives have been completely changed and we are being sanctified from the inside out. Each aspect of the law is answered and fulfilled in Christ, and we can only see that through a gospel lens.
Letting Scripture interpret Scripture and understanding the law in the light of the gospel leads us to the knowledge of which laws apply today and which don’t. I hope you see the difference between that approach and saying that the Old Testament doesn’t apply anymore. And I hope you see the difference between that and the accusation that we pick and choose for ourselves what laws to follow. But most of all, I hope the law paints a picture of your need for Christ.
So no, crawfish boils are not sinful. Eat crawfish to your heart’s content.
*If you would like to see how early Baptists understood the law and its divisions, see The 1689: The Second London Baptist Confession, Chapter XIX.
**Although the 10 Commandments still stand as the summation of God’s moral law, the fourth commandment is applied differently. Christians recognize a Sabbath, but it is now on Sunday as a celebration of Christ’s resurrection and we recognize it by gathering together in corporate worship. This was the approach of the early church of the New Testament, where Sunday is called The Lord’s Day. See Colossians 2:16-17.