What does there is nothing unclean of itself mean?

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By BibleAsk Team


Paul is not speaking here about the unclean foods given in Leviticus 11. The context of Romans 14 shows that the apostle was talking about a judgmental spirit among the believers (Jews and Gentiles) who were judging each other for eating foods sacrificed to idols (verses 4, 10 and 13). “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Romans 14:13).

The verse “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” (Romans 14:14, NKJV) is often brought up in discussions about dietary laws and whether certain foods are inherently clean or unclean. However, a closer examination of the context and the broader biblical teaching reveals that Paul is clearly addressing a different issue than the dietary laws outlined in Leviticus 11.

Context of Romans 14

Romans 14 addresses the tension between Jewish and Gentile believers in the early church. The Jewish Christians, having been raised with the Mosaic Law, continued to observe dietary restrictions, while the Gentile Christians did not have these same traditions. This difference in practice led to conflicts and judgments among the believers. Paul writes to encourage mutual acceptance and to discourage judging one another over disputable matters.

Romans 14:1-3 (NKJV) sets the stage:

“Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him.”

Paul is speaking about personal convictions and the importance of accepting one another despite differences in dietary practices. The “weak” in faith are those who are more restrictive, perhaps abstaining from meat altogether to avoid potential contamination from food sacrificed to idols or non-kosher foods. The “strong” are those who feel the liberty to eat all foods without such concerns.

Romans 14:14 – “There Is Nothing Unclean of Itself”

The verse in question is pivotal:

Romans 14:14 (NKJV):

“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.”

Paul is not here sweeping away all distinctions between clean and unclean foods. The interpretation must be limited to the specific foods under discussion and to the particular issue with which the apostle is dealing, namely, the sympathetic treatment of those whose partly-enlightened consciences prevent their eating certain foods. Paul is not making a blanket statement about the dietary laws given in Leviticus 11. Instead, he is addressing the broader principle that food, in and of itself, is neutral; it is the human perspective and conscience that can render it clean or unclean.

Clean and Unclean Foods in Leviticus 11

Leviticus 11 provides a detailed list of animals that are considered clean and unclean for the Israelites. These dietary laws were given to the people of Israel as part of their covenant with God and served both practical and symbolic purposes.

Leviticus 11:1-4 (NKJV):

“Now the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘These are the animals which you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth: Among the animals, whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud—that you may eat. Nevertheless these you shall not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have cloven hooves: the camel, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you.'”

These laws were given for health and purity reasons and applicable to all people at all times.

Paul’s Argument in Romans 14

Paul’s primary concern in Romans 14 is the unity of the church and the avoidance of judgmental attitudes among believers. He emphasizes that each person should be fully convinced in their own mind and act according to their conscience without condemning others.

Romans 14:5-6 (NKJV):

“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.”

This passage highlights the principle that individual practices, whether regarding meats served to idols or the observance of ceremonial Hebrew feast days, should be done in a way that honors the Lord and respects others’ convictions.

Food Sacrificed to Idols

A significant issue in the early church was whether Christians could eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. This was a particular concern in Corinth, where much of the meat sold in markets had been part of pagan sacrifices. Paul addresses this issue in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10.

1 Corinthians 8:4-8 (NKJV):

“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. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. 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. 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.”

Paul acknowledges that idols are nothing and that eating food sacrificed to idols is not inherently sinful. However, he also stresses the importance of being sensitive to the consciences of others who might be troubled by such actions.

Judgmental Spirit Among Believers

In Romans 14, Paul repeatedly warns against passing judgment on fellow believers over disputable matters. The overarching principle is love and mutual acceptance.

Romans 14:10-13 (NKJV):

“But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: ‘As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.”

Paul’s focus is on preventing division and encouraging believers to act in love, not causing others to stumble or be offended by their actions.

Conclusion

The verse “there is nothing unclean of itself” in Romans 14:14 is not a declaration that all meats are clean in the context of the dietary laws given in Leviticus 11. Rather, it addresses the issue of personal conscience and mutual acceptance among believers. Paul is teaching that food, in itself, is neutral, and what matters is the attitude and conscience of the believer consuming it. The primary concern in Romans 14 is to avoid judgmental attitudes and to live in a way that promotes peace and mutual edification within the body of Christ.

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In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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