Historical documents indicate that prayerful reflection and fasting during Lent goes back to the early church. Irenaeus (ca. 130-202), in a letter to Pope Victor, the bishop of Rome, mentioned a two-to-three-day pre-Easter fast in which the “variation in observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers.” By 325, the Council of Nicea recommended a 40-day fast during Lent for new believers preparing for baptism—a challenge that quickly spread to the entire Church. Over time, “giving something up” became the centerpiece of Lent.
Which brings us to Leviticus of all places! In Leviticus 11, God instructed Israel to refrain from eating certain foods. Why were some animals declared “clean” while others were labeled “unclean”? What was it that made rabbits, geckos, mice, and pigs unfit for dinner? Even lobster and shrimp were banned from the kitchen table! What’s going on here?
Animals represented human beings.
Sacrificial animals represented Israel as a kingdom of priests. Clean animals represented Gentiles who worshipped Yahweh (e.g., Jethro, Rahab, Ruth, etc.). Unclean animals represented those who worshipped other gods. Israel’s observance of the food laws was a reminder that God had set them apart to be a light to the nations, so that by her light, salvation may reach the end of the earth.
However, abstaining from certain foods did not make them holy. Jesus confirmed this: “Whatever goes into a person from the outside cannot defile him” nor make him holy—to which Mark concludes, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:18-19). Anyone can be made clean by trusting in Christ.
When Peter received a vision of unclean animals, he heard a voice say, “Rise Peter; kill and eat … Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean” (Acts 10:9-15). Notice how Peter interprets the vision when the Spirit sends him to Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile. “God has shown me that I must not call any person impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Peter saw animals in the vision, but he finally understood that animals represented people. “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him … there is peace with God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (10:34-36).
“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” (1 Cor 8:8). “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 Tim 4:4-5). God’s kingdom isn’t about food and drink (Rom 14:17). When we seek his kingdom and righteousness, our food will be to do God’s will (John 4:34).
So, what about giving up from something over Lent? Jesus offered no instructions on when or how to fast. But he did make one thing clear: fasting should be motivated by a serious felt need (Matt 9:14-15) and “obvious only to your Father” in heaven (Matt 6:16-18).