This is the post that I have been planning to write for the last week or so. I guess it made more sense to wait until after I had preached the sermon anyway. Now that the sermon audio for this message has been uploaded to the church site, I will write out some thoughts as a companion here.
When I was studying the text and commentaries and such for Acts 10, I was struck by how unusually obvious this particular misunderstanding is when we stop to think about it for a minute or two. Let me throw this statement at you and then we will examine its validity. Peter’s vision is not about food!
Take a minute to let the shock wear off if you have never heard that said before, but I assure you that this is the case. For some reason, most theologians have latched on to the idea that this is a premiere proof text for the idea that the laws of kosher have been repealed. It goes back a long way, into the days when many of the 2nd or 3rd century church fathers were seeking to separate from any hint of Jewishness in the Way of Jesus. But this isn’t the place for a historical study. Let’s look at the text.
The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. 17Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate 18and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”
A quick perusal of a few mainline commentaries will yield the following interpretation of verse 15:
The prejudices of Peter against the Gentiles, would have prevented his going to Cornelius, unless the Lord had prepared him for this service. To tell a Jew that God had directed those animals to be reckoned clean which were hitherto deemed unclean, was in effect saying, that the law of Moses was done away.
The sheet from heaven and the voice both bear witness that all God’s creatures are now to be viewed as clean and good, not to be refused
What men have always done, or what their habitual behavior is, usually determines their reaction to any given circumstances. Peter did not yet know, despite all the teaching he had received of the Lord, that the Mosaic restrictions on diet were no longer binding on Christians; therefore, based upon that misconception on his part, Peter’s refusal seemed perfectly right and proper to him; but it was wrong. God, at that very moment, was in the act of teaching him the fundamentals of the new dispensation.
I could probably keep adding more, but I want to get to the point of the error. Let me introduce a couple of points that create problems with these “interpretations” of the vision.
- God does not change
- Malachi 3:6 – “I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.”
- Numbers 23:19 – God is not a man, that he should lie,
nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
Does he promise and not fulfill?
- God’s Word does not change either
- Isaiah 40:8 – The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever. (Peter quotes this verse in 1 Peter 1 by the way)
- Matthew 5:18 – I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
- Isaiah 40:8 – The grass withers and the flowers fall,
Let me offer another way of reading the above cited commentaries view on verse 15. “God finally decided to let Peter in on the joke regarding clean and unclean animals. He was really just wanting to see if those Jews would give up tasty pork and shellfish, just because He said to do so.” If that sounds blasphemous, it is because it is.
The attempt to play editor for God has been made before and will continue to be made until time is done. It actually lays at the root of many of the problems facing the church today. I will get into that in greater detail in a second post; for now, I want to get to what the vision of Peter is really about. Since it isn’t about food, what is God telling Peter and consequently us as well?
Perhaps the best place to look is the Scripture itself (shocking, I know). Peter tells us what his vision meant in this very same chapter. Look at his discourse with Cornelius:
And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. 28And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”
Let me point out two things here. Firstly, there is no law anywhere in Scripture that prohibits Jews from associating with anyone of another nation. Peter is speaking about oral traditions or oral Torah in this case, which gives us insight into how scrupulously Torah observant he really was. It seems he took Jesus’ command in Matthew 23:2 very seriously indeed. He was obedient to the teaching of the Jewish authorities that Jews were not to mingle with Gentiles or else they would be made unclean. It took a specific command from God to disregard it in fact. This is the meaning of the vision according to Peter in verse 28. He is not to call any man common or unclean. This has nothing to do with food whatsoever. Further confirmation comes in Acts chapter 11. Peter is called upon to give justification for his actions in visiting Cornelius and he does so by first relating the vision of the sheet; to emphasize that God sent him to the Gentiles specifically by means of this vision.
Thus, Peter’s vision isn’t about food; it is about men.
There is much more that can be added to clarify this, but I don’t wish to lengthen this post needlessly. If you are interested in a more in-depth analysis of this issue, I would commend this excellent piece by Tim Hegg, which deals with not only this Acts 10 passage but also the Mark 7:19 issue regarding “purging all foods.”