When I recently told someone I was going to speak on the Bible and eating, they quickly responded, “Will your focus be on fellowship or gluttony?” Both topics are discussed in Scripture, but I assured the person I would not be touching on the gluttony aspect, and that will be the case for this article as well.
Take a second to consider all the times the Bible discusses food and eating. If you do some good brainstorming, you might be surprised how often the topic actually comes up. Think about it…
What did the very first sin involve? Adam and Eve eating fruit from the forbidden tree in the middle of the garden (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:6).
What do many of the Old Testament purity laws involve? Which foods a good Jew could and could not eat. They were to eat “clean” animals, but were to refrain from “unclean” ones (Lev. 11:1-23).
What did Daniel and his three friends request after being taken to Babylon? To not be fed the royal food and drink of the king and instead to be given vegetables and water (Daniel 1).
Fast forward to the New Testament…
What does Jesus so often compare the Kingdom of God to in the Gospel of Luke? To a banquet or a feast (Luke 13:28-29; 14:7-24; 15:23-24, 32).
What was one of the last things Jesus did with His disciples before His death? He shared a meal, the Passover supper, with them (Matt. 22:17-30).
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, what was one of the four things the members of the first church devoted themselves to? The breaking of bread (Acts 2:42), which involved not only the Lord’s Supper but a full meal for everyone in the church.
What were the New Testament authors Peter and Jude worried about in their respective letters? Outsiders (non-believers) eating meals with the local church and disrupting the fellowship and unity of the believers (2 Ptr. 2, see especially vv12-14; Jude, see especially vv12-13).
Finally, how does the book of Revelation describe the end of time when all believers (the church; the bride) will be joined with Christ (the groom)? As a marriage feast (Rev. 19:9), which includes a banquet and a full meal.
So you see, the Bible is full of discussion about food and eating. The question is, why? Why does the Bible have so much to say on this topic?
Of course, there is not just one answer to that question. There are many reasons why the Bible discusses food and in places even commanded people which foods they could and could not eat. But there is one reason in particular that I want to focus on. The Bible, especially the New Testament, says so much about food and eating because it was a huge part of the Roman Empire’s culture.
The background and setting for the entire New Testament is the first century Roman Empire. During this time period, Rome and king Caesar ruled the world. Rome loved to control its citizens, and there were a number of ways they did that. One way they controlled the masses was through the institution of voluntary associations, which, functionally, were supper clubs. Essentially everyone in Rome, from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor, was part of a voluntary association. But there were divisions. The wealthy joined associations with other wealthy members. The poor did the same. Artisans associated with other artisans. Other craftsmen did the same. This being the case, everyone in Rome had their place and knew their place in society, and it was seldom subject to change.
These associations would gather, either weekly or monthly, to have a meal (called the deipnon) and a time of discussion and/or entertainment (called the symposion). At these banquets, people would form their identity as individuals based on the identity and beliefs of the group as a whole. So in all reality, the identity of the individual was based on that of the group. As these people bonded around the supper table, they became one.
Now what does all of this have to do with the Bible? When Jesus left the apostles behind to begin the New Testament church, and when Paul and others began planting churches all over the Roman Empire, they each took the form of a voluntary association. Church gatherings consisted of a group meal followed by a time of discussion and teaching. During these banquets, which served as the early church’s “worship services,” fellow believers would sit around the table with each other, create a bond, and form an identity. And who was that identity based on? None other than Jesus Christ the resurrected Lord.
Because society as a whole, and especially the church, centered on these meals/banquets, the authors of the New Testament made sure to give food and eating plenty of attention. 2 Peter 2 and the entirety of the letter of Jude focus on the presence of outsiders (non-believers; false teachers) at the meal table with the church. Consider 2 Peter 2:13, “They are blots and blemishes, delighting in their deceptions as they feast with you.” Also consider Jude 12, “These are the ones who are like dangerous reefs at your love feasts.” These authors could not bear to see the Christian identity of these churches and their members compromised by outsiders who were feasting with them at their weekly meetings.
The New Testament gives so much weight to these banquets that it uses them as an analogy for the Kingdom of God. What will it be like at the end of time when believers from all ages and locations are gathered together with their King? According to Jesus, there will be people coming from all over the place to “recline at the table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). According to Revelation, it will be like a “marriage feast” (Rev. 19:9).
When this earth is destroyed and we enjoy life in the new heavens and earth, will we really sit around a table with other believers and enjoy a meal? That I cannot be certain of. But what I am certain of is that this meal concept is a great way to live life now and a great way to describe how it will be for all eternity. Whether we sit around a meal table, a conference table, or a Sunday school table, we should be spending time with brothers and sisters in Christ creating bonds and forming an identity based on Christ. And when we reach eternity, what a joy it will be to worship and fellowship with our Christian family forever.
Is anybody hungry now?