“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their conscience seared with a hot iron, 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. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:1-5 NKJV).
As our party traveled by foot to a remote village in the middle hills of Nepal we came to a pool in a river where two men were washing something that I first took to be clothes or at least rags of some kind. As we got closer, however, I realized they were washing out the intestines of an animal that they had slaughtered. The intestines had come from a water buffalo. There was still a considerable pile of unwashed entrails, and to say that they looked “unappetizing” would be a tremendous understatement. Yet it has not been that long ago that “chitlins” (pigs’ intestines) were considered good eating in the southern U.S., and in some places, they remain so. It did not really surprise me that people in other places would have similar tastes and customs.
We often find ourselves put off, or even offended, by the food that someone else finds tasty. Many are unable to eat at the same table with someone whose steak is less cooked than they prefer. Others find certain foods, especially the meat of some animals, to be repulsive. Personal taste is one thing. To proclaim a category of food unclean or defiled is going much further, however.
Paul reminds us that all creatures were and are designed and made by God. And God is the creator of good, not evil. To condemn foods is in some instances at least tantamount to accusing God of making bad things. Or at least that seems to be Paul’s conclusion in 1Timothy 4. In former times in the U.S. children were often taught the simple mealtime prayer, “God is great, God is good, God we thank thee for our food.” If God is good, it follows that the food he created for us to eat is also good. Paul and the Holy Spirit agree.
The same idea is found in the vision which Peter received in Joppa (Acts 10:9-16). When Peter refused to “kill and eat” unclean animals after God had invited him to do so, he was told, “What God has cleansed you must not call common (i.e., unclean).” In that case, God was preparing the Jewish Apostle for the revelation that Gentiles were also acceptable to God through faith in the Gospel of Christ.
But whether we are speaking of races of people or of animals the principle is the same: God is good, and what God has made is good. It may be contaminated or perverted but in its initial form, God intended it for and made it to be good.
Paul’s warning in the initial text I have quoted is not intended to force us to eat anything and everything which we may be offered. It is rather to prevent one person from imposing his own preferences or tastes upon others. In another text, Paul discusses those who believe they may eat all things and those who eat only vegetables. He then ordains, “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats” (Romans 14:2-3). We have the freedom to eat or to fast, to be vegetarians or meat eaters. We do not have the freedom to bind our decision upon other Christians.
While the principle of freedom is Paul’s emphasis here, I believe it is also appropriate and important to note the other principle which these texts support – that of God’s inherent benevolence. He is good, he does good, and he wishes good for his people. We can trust God and depend upon him because in all things he is moved by love for us and by his desire to help us.
It is also important to note our appropriate response: to receive God’s blessings with thanksgiving. Let us be thankful for all of God’s gifts, for he indeed has given us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).