Let us read Hebrews 13:9 in context, including verses 10-16:
“(9) Do not be carried about [away] with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace, not with foods [or meat] which have not profited those who have been occupied with them. (10) We have an ALTAR from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. (11) For the bodies of the BEASTS, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. (12) Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. (13) Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His approach. (14) For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come [the heavenly Jerusalem]. (15) Therefore by Him let us continually offer the SACRIFICE of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. (16) But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such SACRIFICES God is well pleased.”
Most commentaries will tell you that the passage of Hebrews 13:9 was written, at least in part, to abolish the biblical teaching regarding clean and unclean animals, and that it is now permissible for us to eat the meat of such animals which the Bible has designated as unclean and therefore improper for nourishment.
For instance, Vincent’s Word Studies states the following:
“These teachings represent various phases of one radical error – the denial of Jesus’s messiahship and of his messianic economy as superseding Judaism and all other means of salvation. Among them the writer’s mind would naturally turn to the prescriptions concerning clean and unclean meats and sacrificial festivals… These teachings were various as contrasted with the one teaching of the gospel; they were strange as they differed from that teaching.”
However, an abolishment of God’s distinction between clean and unclean animals is clearly NOT what the passage intends to convey. We have produced literature which proves from the Old and the New Testament that the consumption of the flesh of unclean animals is still prohibited. You might want to review the following Q&A’s in this regard:
Some commentaries are more vague in their interpretation as to what Hebrews 13:9 is supposed to state.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible (“Gill”) points out:
“‘…not with meats’; referring to the distinction of meats among the Jews; or the sacrifices [eaten] both by the priests and by the people; or the whole ceremonial law which stood in divers meats and drinks…”
As Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews to explain that Christ’s supreme Sacrifice rendered all animal sacrifices as no longer necessary and therefore obsolete, some commentaries, such as Gill, above, conclude that Hebrews 13:9 may be focusing on the sacrificial system and the concept that it and its animal sacrifices were “unprofitable” (compare again verse 9).
Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible is even more direct in this respect, saying:
“It is well to have the heart, the mind, and conscience, fully satisfied with the truth and efficacy of the Gospel; for so the word [for ‘good’] should be understood here, which is put in opposition to… meats, signifying here the Levitical institutions, and especially its sacrifices, these being emphatically termed meats, because the offerers were permitted to feast upon them after the blood had been poured out before the Lord… ‘Which have not profited them’ – Because they neither took away guilt, cleansed the heart, nor gave power over sin.”
It is true, of course, that the letter or epistle to the Hebrews clearly states that the flesh and the blood of animals cannot forgive sins, and that temporary animal sacrifices were only given to remind the people of their sins (Hebrews 10:1-4, 11, 18; compare, too, Hebrews 9:9-10). For more information on the purpose of the sacrifices, please read our free booklet, “The Sacrificial System and the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.”
Still, it is unlikely that Hebrews 13:9 intends to address the sacrifices and the sacrificial system per se, as Paul refers to the objectionable teachings as “various” and “strange” doctrines.
Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible (“Barnes”) presents an interesting explanation, which is coming closer to at least portions of the intended meaning of Hebrews 13:9:
“‘Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines’ — That is, they should have settled and fixed points of belief, and not yield to every new opinion which was started. The apostle does not exhort them to adhere to an opinion merely because they had before held it, or because it was an old opinion, nor does he forbid their following the leadings of truth though they might be required to abandon what they had before held; but he cautions them against that vacillating spirit, and that easy credulity, which would lead them to yield to any novelty, and to embrace an opinion because it was new or strange. Probably the principal reference here is to the Judaizing teachers, and to their various doctrines about their ceremonial observances and traditions. But the exhortation is applicable to Christians at all times. A religious opinion, once embraced on what was regarded a good evidence, or in which we have been trained, should not be abandoned for slight causes. Truth indeed should always be followed, but it should be only after careful inquiry.
“‘For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace’ – This is the proper foundation of adherence to the truth. The heart should be established with the love of God, with pure religion, and then we shall love the truth, and love it in the right manner… When a man is thrown into trials and temptations, he ought to have some settled principles on which he can rely; some fixed points of belief that will sustain his soul.
“‘Not with meats’ – The meaning is, that it is better to have the heart established with grace, or with the principles of pure religion, than with the most accurate knowledge of the rules of distinguishing the clean from the unclean among the various articles of food. Many such rules were found in the Law of Moses, and many more had been added by the refinements of Jewish rulers and by tradition. To distinguish and remember all these, required no small amount of knowledge, and the Jewish teachers, doubtless, prided themselves much on it. Paul says that it would be much better to have the principles of grace in the heart than all this knowledge; to have the mind settled on the great truths of religion than to be able to make the most accurate and learned distinctions in this matter…”
What we should take away from Barnes’ comments is that certain “rules” had been “added by the refinements of Jewish rulers and by tradition.” In other words, these rules did not originate with God’s law, but with human traditions and ideas.
We need to emphasize that Paul is addressing “various and strange” doctrines. In the final analysis, doctrines pertaining to the distinction of clean and unclean meats or even to the sacrificial system were not “strange” to God or the Hebrews. Rather, the Jews were very familiar with these teachings so that it is doubtful that Paul was addressing any of these Old Testament laws. It is much more likely that Paul was addressing traditional Jewish teaching (outside the pages of the Old Testament) and the concepts of pagan or “Gnostic” teachers who were trying to convince the Hebrews to adopt “new” or “strange” ideas regarding food or meat, or their habit of eating and drinking. (For an in-depth analysis of these “strange” doctrines, please read page 77 of our booklet, “Is That in the Bible? Man’s Holidays and God’s Holy Days,” as well as pages 46 and 47 of our booklet, “God’s Commanded Holy Days.”)
Other commentators also seem to realize that Paul was addressing concepts in Hebrews 13:9, which had not originated with God, but with men. God gave ancient Israel the law regarding clean and unclean meat, as well as the sacrificial system. While the law pertaining to clean and unclean meat is still in effect, the law pertaining to the sacrificial ceremonial system has indeed been superseded by Christ’s supreme Sacrifice. Still, all these laws originated with God, and Paul could not possibly have referred to them as “strange.”
What was “strange” — even in the eyes of God– were doctrines and concepts originating with men.
The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown commentary seems to realize this, although it mixes truth with error. It states: “‘…established with grace; not with meats’ — not with observances of Jewish distinctions between clean and unclean meats, to which ascetic Judaizers added in Christian times the rejection of some meats, and the use of others…”
Notice, this commentary realizes too that men, under demonic influence, had added the concepts of rejecting some meats, which God has created as clean or proper for human consumption (1 Timothy 4:1-3), while allowing the consumption of animal flesh which God has specifically prohibited.
In regard to the meaning of the phrase “various and strange doctrines,” Gill states:
“Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines’… The word ‘divers’ may denote the variety and multitude of other doctrines; referring either to the various rites and ceremonies of the law, or to the traditions of the elders, or to the several doctrines of men, whether Jews or Gentiles… and ‘strange’ doctrines may design such as were never taught by God, nor are agreeable to the voice of Christ, nor to be found in the word of God; and which are new, and unheard of, by the apostles and churches of Christ; and appear in a foreign dress and habit: wherefore the apostle exhorts the believing Hebrews not to be ‘carried about with them’…”
In conclusion, it is very clear from the entirety of Scripture that Hebrews 13:9 does not teach that the distinction between clean and unclean animals has been abolished. It does not even seem to address the sacrificial system, but it is apparently focusing on new and strange doctrines which uninspired people (Jews and Gentiles) were teaching to detract from the supreme Sacrifice of Jesus Christ (compare 2 Peter 2:1-3).
Lead Writer: Norbert Link