Many Christians consider Peter’s vision to be the moment when God declares all meat to be clean. That’s strange because Peter himself states the meaning of the vision - so why would we explain it differently? The history of Acts 10 takes place ten years after Christ’s ascension. Three times God shows Peter a sheet depicting a mix of clean and unclean animals. Then He is ordered to kill and to eat. Peter replies as follows:
“Not so, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." (vs. 14)
His reply indicates that Peter never changed his diet after Christ’s ascension. That’s why the vision confuses him. He cannot imagine that God would order him to eat unclean meats. Still pondering the meaning of the vision (vs.17), Peter receives visitors. They ask him to go to Caesarea to explain the teachings of Jesus to a certain Cornelius. Behold, Cornelius, the last person to whom Peter wants to preach! First of all, Cornelius was a heathen. But not only that, he was a Roman heathen. And lastly, he was Roman centurion, a military leader of the enemy. Cornelius represents the oppressor. And exactly this man is hungry to hear the Gospel. To go to Cornelius, Peter had to overcome many negative feelings. But there was a bigger problem with Peter’s conviction, a problem faced by subsequent apostles as well: in Jewish tradition to visit and to eat with Gentiles was not condoned; they were unclean. The Torah indeed mentions that the Gentiles were unclean. Yet it does not condemn social interaction with them. On the contrary! The Torah dictates that strangers be treated respectfully (Lev.19:33-34) as those “who lived in their midst’. Together with the widows and the orphans they were a special social group that was to be looked after properly (Deut. 24:17). Strangers were even allowed to make offerings to God (Lev.17:9). The Jews were allowed to visit and eat with them (Deut.12:15) and under certain circumstances it was even acceptable to marry them (Deut. 21:10-13). However, one thing was strictly prohibited: The Jew must under no circumstances imitate their pagan religious practices. The Torah is very clear about this!
In return, the stranger had to be loyal to the commandments of the Torah (Lev. 24:22). They were also not allowed to eat blood, unclean things, etc. For them, adaptation was a ‘must’, not an option.
The status of being unclean was not limited to the Gentiles, for after all, from time to time every Jew had to deal with it. For example, every man was temporarily unclean after having ejaculated (Lev.15:16) and every woman was unclean during her menstrual period (Lev.15:19). These people were not cast out. But they had to take some precautions regarding clothes, furniture and other people.
Based on the teachings of the Torah, uncleanness was no reason to avoid every social interaction. This attitude originated in Jewish tradition. Jesus Himself confirmed that the Gentiles were indeed unclean, but He still interacted with them. Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a dog but He speaks with her and even heals her daughter (Matt.15:26-28). Also in the encounter with the Samaritan woman it is clear that Jesus interacts with people who the Jews reject (John 4:9). Jesus breaks through Jewish tradition when appropriate.
Back to the vision of Peter. God Himself explains the vision to him:
And the voice spoke unto him again the second time, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." (Acts 10:15)
Then suddenly Peter understood that God was not speaking of food - but of the Gentiles! At Cornelius’ house Peter explained the rules of the Jewish tradition first (bold text) and then the meaning of his vision.
And he said unto them, "Ye know that it is an unlawful thing for a man who is a Jew to keep company with or to come unto one of another nation. But God hath shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (Acts 10:28)
Then Peter opened his mouth and said, "In truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons,… (vs.34)
In other words:
When the unclean is declared clean God was not referring to food, God was referring to the Gentiles!
The Gentiles, once unclean, are now declared clean and therefore they share in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Until that point it was impossible. The sacrifices offered by the Jews day and night only reconciled the Jews themselves. The sacrificial blood continuously cleansed the Israelite community. The Gentiles were not under the scope of the Old Testament sacrifices. But … the power of the blood of the perfect Sacrifice has no limits. The blood of Jesus cleanses all nations with retroactive effect: for all time throughout history. That’s why the nations are clean since the Perfect Sacrifice of Jesus. This concept was new and to mobilize the apostles God really had to persuade them by revelation. Here Peter receives a vision, later the apostle Paul receives one:
… how by revelation He made known unto me the mystery (as I wrote before a few words on this, whereby when ye read this, ye may understand my knowledge of the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: (Eph.3:3-5)
And what is this mystery?
… that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the Gospel. (vs.6)
As the prophet Elijah had to be prepared to be nursed by the pagan woman in Zarephath (see paragraph 1.8), so Peter had to be convinced to go to Cornelius and Paul had to be persuaded to become the apostle to the Gentiles.
For us, it is a logical concept and easy to understand. For the Jews
definitely not. The Jews always had trouble sharing their God. The entire book of Jonah describes the aversion of the Jews towards sharing God’s grace with a Gentile nation. Now, since the
Perfect Sacrifice, the Gentiles officially share in God’s grace. God’s binoculars focus and the whole world is visible. Until this point holy scripture described but one nation. Occasionally the
Old Testament mentions future times when the Gentiles will partake. Now that era had come. Reve
lation was necessary because this was completely new!
The vision of Peter has a very rich meaning for the Gentile nations:
We are declared clean by God Himself!
It is regrettable that most Christians misunderstand Peter’s vision. In their explanation God declares unclean animals clean and thereby fit for human consumption. What does it matter to me that I’m allowed to eat pork? Does that enrich my life? Isn’t it much, much better to be clean yourself?! Clean, fit to hear the word of God; fit to share in the inheritance. That is really something precious!
This article is a copy of paragraph 2.3 from the Dutch book De Hemelse voedselbank. Publisher: Merweboek, Sliedrecht, The Netherlands
Author: E. Noordermeer. Translated by R.B. Guicherit.