“I love animals and I hate to see them suffer or be killed, so I am a vegetarian. I really struggle with the requirement for the shedding of blood and all those sacrifices of animals under the Law of Moses.”

This comment was made to me by someone who was quite troubled, and I hope my response was helpful!

God’s immense knowledge

The first point we should note is that all the creatures on the planet are God’s creatures, He created them. Christ declared: “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?’ (Luke 12:6). Nothing happens to any creature without God’s knowledge, even the humblest little birds are not forgotten by Him. The statement speaks of a vast, on-going awareness of every creature through every moment by our God. Job rightly said of his God, “In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” (12:10). Here is a capacity and concern beyond our conception. The next comment of our Lord is even more breathtaking: “even the very hairs of your head are all numbered”. Remember that there is a normal rate of hair loss and regrowth every day. And in the divine consciousness there is an awareness of that every day for every moment. This comprehensive awareness is critical, for in the resurrection there will be a recreation of each person involved, including every facet of mind and body to the tiniest particular.

Of course we do not have that divine awareness of all things, but God expects that we will treat His creatures with kindness, not brutality. We read in Proverbs12:10, “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” And we surely remember the stipulation: “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn” (Deut 25:4).

Before Christ

Though such kindness is right and proper, there is no scriptural prohibition on eating of meat, rather the reverse. So after the Flood Noah was told, “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you: even as the green herb have I given you all things.” Later under the Law of Moses instructions were given to Israel to distinguish between clean and unclean creatures with the context making it quite clear that eating meat (of animals, fish, birds etc) was both permissible and common place. So God declares through Moses in Leviticus 11:2 “These are the beasts which ye shall eat among all the beasts which are on the earth…” and “These ye shall eat of all that are in the waters…” (v9) etc. After his resurrection, our Lord met the disciples in Galilee, produced a great catch of fishes for them, and when they came to shore “they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon and bread” and they dined together (John 21:5–15). Clearly eating such a meal was acceptable and normal for Christ and the disciples.

In the first century

Some in the idol worshipping first century environment had a conscience against eating meat which had been dedicated to idols. Paul gave sensible direction to those who had no such qualms: “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died … It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak” (Rom14:14–15, 21).

There is nothing at all wrong with being a vegetarian. Equally there is nothing at all wrong with eating meat of various kinds. But our love for our brothers and sisters, together with the apostolic injunction should commit us to causing no offence. If we were to have at our table a vegetarian brother or sister, we should refrain from indulging our taste for meat if it was going to cause offence.

Sacrifices and the shedding of blood

But there is yet this drawing back from the thought of sacrifice involving the shedding of blood out of a keen sensitivity and love of animals. However, our personal squeamishness does not invalidate the clear teaching of Scripture. After the first sin in Eden, the record tells us that “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). Animals had to die, blood had to be shed to make this provision of a covering for Adam and Eve. This action was to emphasise that, right from the beginning, “without shedding of blood is no remission (of sin)” (Heb 9:22). The death of the animal and the covering thus provided was to emphasise that atonement for sin could only be made through the sacrifice, the shedding of blood, of the one whom God would provide: our Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:29; Rev 13:8).

The blood, of course, stood as a symbol for the life that expired as blood was shed. So we read in Leviticus17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood”. When an Israelite brought an offering for sin and had to “lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering and slay the sin offering”(Lev 4:29), there was a declaration that death comes by sin, that his life is forfeited and atonement can only be provided by the shedding of blood. To feel the life of that beast ebb away was certainly a hard and graphic reminder of the Divine punishment due for sin, and doubtless even in those ‘tougher’ times, many found it a di cult process to go through.

The bread and wine

When we partake of the bread and wine we are reminded of what was accomplished for us in the death (and resurrection) of the Son of God. “…this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for many, for the remission of sins,” declared our Lord Jesus Christ in the upper room as the shadow of the crucifixion loomed large. The Apostle Peter, who of course was there that night with his Lord, declared that our redemption is not effected with “corruptible things … But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” Yes the blood was precious but it was so because it stood for that precious life of the sinless Son of God.

Though we might sometimes shudder at the thought of the death of the animals in accordance with the divine provisions of the sacrificial code, we must remember that they were divine provisions, part of that schoolmaster institution pointing forward to the Messiah. We are blessed indeed to be called to serve our Lord, to be covered by his sacrifice and to have a hope of eternal life because “the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1John 1:7).