A variety of explanations are offered to make sense of the clean/unclean Levitical laws in Leviticus 11-15. I have heard people say that this is the diet that God wants all people to follow. I have heard people try to symbolize the food items – that some kinds of food represent sin, and that’s why they are forbidden.
Honestly, I think those explanations are trying too hard with the text. When reading the Bible, generally the simplest understanding of the text is the best way to go. God has chosen for Himself a people (Israel), and He is identifying them as His covenant people by setting them apart by these particular restrictions. God’s people were to be identified as “holy,” which just means “set apart.” I think this is most clearly seen in Leviticus 11:44-47:
For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
This is the law about beast and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms on the ground, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten.
The Christian is in a very similar position. Although these Old Testament dietary and clean-unclean distinctions no longer apply to followers of Christ (Matthew 15:10-20, Acts 10:9-16), God still wants His people to be “set apart.” God is a God who separates. Look at the separating that God did in creation as an example of that. (Genesis 1:4,7) Christ is a person who separates people because of the radical nature of His teaching. (Matthew 10:34-39) In today’s world, “tolerance” is culturally the norm, and being distinct is sometimes considered weird or narrow-minded. But through the blood of Christ, God has included into his set-apart people all who put their hope in Christ. (1 Peter 2:9-12) And He still expects us to be distinct and counter-cultural. (Colossians 3:1-17) Christians simply can’t just “go along” with the world, because we’re headed different directions.
The Old Testament restrictions, like the rest of the Old Testament law, are simply a shadow of the holiness that God expects. (Colossians 2:16-23) These laws and codes primarily relate to external matters. “They are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:23) The Old Testament law consists of “baby steps” that were designed to teach God’s people what holiness looks like. What God is ultimately after is for our hearts to be radically set apart for Him and Him only. This is what it means to be a follower of Christ.
The questions I use to diagnose how my heart is doing in being set apart for Christ are these: Can the people who encounter me on a daily basis tell that I am a follower of Christ by the things I say and the things I do? Would they be surprised to find out that I am a Christian?