Bible Misunderstandings: Peter’s Vision in Acts 10

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have latched on to the idea that this is a premiere proof text for the idea that the laws of kosher have been repealed.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.”

(Acts 10:9-20)

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.

Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary

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

IVP  New Testament Commentaries

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.

Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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.

  1. God does not change
    1. Malachi 3:6 – “I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.”
    2. 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?
  2. God’s Word does not change either
    1. 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)
    2. 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.

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.”

-Acts 10:27-29

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.”

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Categories: Apologetics, Bible Misunderstandings, Bible Thoughts, Christianity, Discipleship, Hebrew, Law, Questions, theology, Truth | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Bible Misunderstandings: Peter’s Vision in Acts 10

  1. “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.” All I can say is: Right On! There’s a really animated debate that I thought would be of interest on evolution vs. intelligent design going on at http://www.intelligentdesignfacts.com

  2. Cammie,
    Thanks for your words of encouragement. I will certainly make a point of checking out your site.

  3. Love it.

    Sorry I’ve been gone for so long. Things have been really hectic over here and I hardly wrote anything for two months, let alone follow any of my brothers’ blogs.

    Glad to see you finally take the plunge into Twitter! Make sure you Tweet your new posts so I can be sure to pick them up. I don’t get into my Google Reader much anymore. No time.

    In Christ,

    Joe.

  4. Joe,
    I will certainly try and remember to tweet new posts. They go to Facebook automatically already, so I may just tweet them a few hours later or something.
    I definitely understand the busyness factor. It is good and bad at the same time.

  5. Pingback: Editing God « Jeofurry’s Jesus Journey

  6. Paul Young

    I have a few thoughts that I would add to the discussion, though definately not fully researched and developed.

    I would have to wonder why if Peter’s vision is not about food…is it about food? Why did God not show many different kinds of men to Peter and declare them all clean? Certainly the Scripture tells us that Peter’s interpretation of this dream referred to men and that is correct, but that doesn’t mean that that is all the vision meant. Remember, Peter still had problems understanding God’s will in this area (Gal 2:11-12). Paul repeatedly lays down the practical prescription of the Christian life and never once to my knowledge does he broach the subject of clean and unclean food (in the sense discussed here).

    With the law comes a curse and bondage (Gal 3:13 & 23). Certainly everything in the Law is true and correct, but simply because God further reveals Himself and His plan does mean that He has changed. His plan doesn’t change because He planned on a progression of revelation (at least insofar as He later revealed the mystery that was hidden for ages – Rom 16:25, Eph 3:9, Col 1:26)

    Just some food for thought on the topic

  7. Paul,
    Nice pun and good comments; thank you for contributing to the discussion my friend.

    As for why the vision included animals there are two answers I can think of. The more amusing one would be that the vision included animals because Peter was hungry (it seems more that coincidental that this fact is mentioned). A second reason has to do with the instruction Peter was given. I don’t know if you had time to check out the linked article at the end of the post, but Hegg points out that the instruction to “kill and eat” is actually given in terms of sacrifice. This would be patently offensive to place the vision in terms of humans in that instance.

    Paul repeatedly lays down the practical prescription of the Christian life and never once to my knowledge does he broach the subject of clean and unclean food (in the sense discussed here).

    Romans 14 dovetails from some of these issues in the sense of ritually pure food. The notion of eating only vegetables in the presence of Gentiles was to insure that you could not eat any meat that was unclean (whether due to idol sacrifice or other), but the term he uses only refers to defiled (ritually unclean) meat and not to “unclean” meat in the sense of type of animal. Paul’s statement there says nothing about eating meat of the latter category.

    The “curse of the Law” is death (Romans 8:2), and we have been set free from that curse of death in order to live the Law in the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:4-9). Notice this is in keeping with the promise of the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 that the Law of God will be written on our hearts. This is a process that will not see its completion here on this side of eternity, but it has certainly begun.

    Let me offer a helpful piece of information when it comes to reading Paul’s letters in the NT. It is important to keep in mind that Paul was a Torah observant Jew until the end. He didn’t renounce Judaism or the Law (see Acts 21:20-26 for example) as can be seen by his own self-descriptions (Philippians 3 where he still references being a Pharisee and professes “faultlessness” in regards to legalistic righteousness). Paul also stresses keeping the commandments, even though he writes to Gentile audiences, although we often fail to notice this (see 1 Corinthians 7:19 for instance) along with other NT writers (1 John 2:3 is another explicit example). For whatever reason, Paul has been seen as someone who taught against the commandments of God, but this simply cannot be true as Paul would know better than this.(Matthew 5:19)

    One word about progression of revelation, God doesn’t contradict His previous statements or promises when He reveals new information. His covenants are stacked one on top of the other, with each successive covenant adding to the ones before it. Thus it is proper to say that His standards haven’t been relaxed, nullified or changed. The dietary laws are still a part of God’s commands and are designated to distinguish (be a mark of) His “set apart” people from those who are not “set apart.” While they are not for salvation and do not save us; they are certainly given by God for those who belong to Him (i.e. those who are saved).

  8. Paul Young

    I’m afraid I won’t have a whole lot of time over the weekend to keep thinking on this subject, but I will keep thinking more about it next week.

    A couple of quick thoughts though:
    Your point about Paul not discussing unclean meat in the sense of types of animals is exactly the point I was making – that Paul doesn’t discuss the topic to my knowledge. I admit that this is a relatively weak argument, but it still stands that Paul did not discuss the topic of unclean meats in the sense that Peter’s vision refers to.
    Also, I would need better Biblical proof to be sure that “Paul was a Torah observant Jew until the end.” This may be the case, and I have no problem with him remaining “in the condition in which he was called” (1 Cor 7:20). However I don’t think the NT is clear that Paul was a Torah observant Jew until the end. It doesn’t even describe his “end.” Both the last part of Paul’s life and his adherence to the Torah are issues that are not exhaustively revealed in the NT. Again, I also see some indications that Paul may have continued to adhere to the Law his whole life, but I do not find that the NT is by any means clear on that issue.
    1 Cor 7:19 is an interesting passage to use because Paul is specifically saying that “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” Meanwhile Lev 12:3 specifically commands circumcision. Certainly circumcision was one of the ways that the children of Israel were supposed to be “set apart” and yet Paul says it doesn’t count for anything. I simply find it hard to see how Paul is not arguing specifically that Gentile believers in the NT church are not bound to adhere to the Torah law of circumcision.

    Anyway, perhaps you have done more research on some of these pasasges than I have and I would be glad to hear your comments.

    Have a great Lord’s day tomorrow!

  9. Paul,
    I too had a lot going on this weekend, so now I can take some time to dialogue with you some more on this.

    Also, I would need better Biblical proof to be sure that “Paul was a Torah observant Jew until the end.

    The conclusion is drawn from inference primarily, but it is buttressed by the fact that Paul’s arrest (which ultimately leads to Rome) took place when he was going into the Temple with four others to offer sacrifices to fulfill a Nazirite vow that he had undertaken (this passage will give most folks fits and usually the attempt to explain this away leads to a charge of Paul “putting on a show” or being otherwise “disingenuous” which is not like Paul at all). It is also confirmed with Paul’s statements regarding the Law. Paul is much more positive about God’s Torah than most modern readers realize. Read Romans 2 and 3 for instance which is topped with the statement of 3:31 – “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.”

    Paul talks in these terms frequently, but other statements that he makes are presumed to be about “the Law” when they are not.

    To shed a little more light on the 1 Corinthians 7 passage, let me offer this help. Paul’s frequent references to circumcision and uncircumcision are not about the Law, rather they are about a “conversion ritual.” The Law does not require Gentiles to be circumcised. It is a commandment given to Abraham’s descendants alone. Jewish practice developed a “conversion ritual” that involved circumcision, immersion and sacrifice. Paul argues that God didn’t require this and has in fact shown that he accepts the Gentile believer apart from adherence to this “sign” given to Jews. Paul’s use of the term circumcision and uncircumcision would be better understood by us today if we insert the terms “legally Jewish” and “legally Gentile” respectively.
    A modern day equivalent of this would be the denominational argument over infant baptism. Some denominations teach that an infant is saved by being baptized; which is very much analogous to the Jewish theology that says a person was saved by being circumcised at birth (i.e. by simply being Jewish). There are denominations that teach that unless you are baptized you cannot be saved. While baptism is a command of Jesus, and should be obeyed as such; it does not confer salvation any more than circumcision did. Salvation is by faith.

    Evidence to confirm this explanation of Paul’s attitude toward circumcision can be found in his treatment of Timothy and Titus. Titus was not circumcised because he was not a Jew(Gal. 2:1-3). Timothy on the other hand was circumcised by Paul, because he was considered to be legally Jewish, through his mother and grandmother according to Jewish custom, but who had not been circumcised because his father was not Jewish (Acts 16:1-3).

    To sum up, the Law requires circumcision for Jews, but not for Gentiles as a rule (there are a couple of specific times it is mentioned, but it isn’t generalized beyond that, Genesis 17:12-14; Exodus 12:43-49)

    A couple of extra tidbits back on the subject of clean/kosher meat. The Apostles’ decision in Acts 15 regarding instructions for the new Gentile converts give 4 directives that we are familiar with in verses 28 and 29:

    28It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.

    The sexual immorality clause is not a concern for this topic, but the other three have some bearing when we look at them together. The first is rather obvious. Any food sacrificed to an idol was considered unclean and a participation in idolatry. The second is to abstain from food that contains blood, which would obviously be meat and is a prohibition that dates back to Noah’s covenant with God and should therefore apply to everyone in their eyes. It is the remaining one that is of particular interest here. The meat of strangled animals is somehow different that meat that “has blood” although most commentaries point to the fact that strangled animals contain blood. If that is the reason for the instruction however, it is a complete redundancy. Strangled animals is likely a reference to meat that was not slaughtered in a “kosher” fashion, i.e. had its throat cut and blood drained. The fact that it is mentioned as a separate category should at least make us stop and consider the reasons why.
    I would like to offer a little extra-biblical help for this one as well. I don’t know if you are familiar with the Didache. It is a collection of teachings supposedly handed down by the Apostles and usually dated to have been compose between 50 AD to 120 AD. In other words, it is a very old record of early church teachings. While it isn’t considered authoritative in the same sense as Scripture; it is certainly instructive. One of the sections actually pertains to this topic and says the following:

    6:1 See lest any man lead you astray from this way of righteousness, for he teacheth thee apart from God.
    6:2 For if thou art able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, thou shalt be perfect;
    6:3 but if thou art not able, do that which thou art able.
    6:4 But concerning eating, bear that which thou art able;
    6:5 yet abstain by all means from meat sacrificed to idols;
    6:6 for it is the worship of dead gods.

    This is an admonition for keeping Torah. The terminology of the “yoke of the Lord” is rabbinic language for God’s Law. Peter used the term in Acts 15 you might recall.
    By the way, if you want to check out the Didache, I found a website that has several translations of it available at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html

    Sorry for the mini-novel of a comment. I am interested to see what you think and I am enjoying discussing this with you. Iron sharpens iron you know.
    Blessings to you brother. I pray you have a great week.

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