If you had seen Peter's vision... would you have decided Christians may eat as food "all kinds of animals, and reptiles and birds of the air"? Did Christ, by a vision, make all unclean animals good for food? Suppose you had lived in the days of the apostles, and you were hungry at noontime as Peter was. The meal was not yet ready as you were praying upon the housetop in private. Suppose, suddenly, you saw in vision "... heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air" (Acts 10:11-12, Revised Standard Version). And suppose, further, a voice from heaven ordered you, "... Rise... kill and eat." What would you have replied? Would you have decided in your mind, that swine, rabbits, dogs, ants, snails and ravens had somehow become clean and fit for human food? Would you have replied, "Yes, Lord, I'll kill and eat, for I have always wanted to taste what is unclean" ? Peter, Jesus' chief apostle, had just such a vision (Acts 10:9-16). Most professing Christians have assumed Peter decided, on hearing "Rise, Peter; kill and eat," to announce to the Church that "creatures of every kind, whatever walks or crawls or flies" (verse 12, New English-Bible) are now clean and fit for food. If you have thought this was Peter's decision, you would be absolutely wrong!
What Peter did decide
Look at Acts, chapters 10 and 11, again. They do not record what most people think! The events surrounding Peter's vision on a housetop in Joppa do not, in fact, begin in Joppa at all. Nor was there any controversy in the Church over clean and unclean meats that needed settling.
"... No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." This is exactly opposite to what most people think.
The account begins in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Palestine. It was the residence of the Roman procurator. Stationed in Caesarea (by the sea) was a considerable Roman garrison. Among its officers was Cornelius, commander of a hundred men. He was "a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God" (Acts 10:2, RSV). Yet he was an Italian — not a circumcised Jew. Further, one afternoon as he was fasting, he had a vision. In it he was commanded to "send men to Joppa, and bring one Simon who is called Peter" (verse 5). Cornelius obeyed. "... he called two of his servants and a devout soldier ... and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa" (verses 7-8). It was a 30-mile trip from Caesarea to Joppa. As the three gentiles approached Joppa next day it was about noon. Peter was at that moment on the housetop of Simon the tanner, praying. Suddenly a vision came to him. Let down from heaven in a great sheet of sailcloth "... were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things: and fowls of the air" (verse 12, King James Version). Then came the voice "... Rise, Peter; kill and eat" (verse 13). What was Peter's response? Notice carefully, "... No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean" (verse 14, RSV). This is exactly opposite to what most people think.
Nothing common or unclean
It was already about 10 years after the crucifixion when this vision occurred. Yet Peter during this entire period had not once tasted unclean meats. And here he is, Christ's chief apostle, responding, "'No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.' And the voice came to him again a second time, 'What God has cleansed, you must not call common.' This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven" (verses 15-16, RSV). Why do you suppose the voice spoke three times to Peter? Let us read on: "Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men that were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon's house, stood before the gate and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him... " (verses 17-19). Notice, "Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean." Jesus' chief apostle did not jump to hasty conclusions. "And while Peter was pondering the vision... " Peter still had not come to any conclusion. He must have considered the scriptures that animals were clean and unclean' before the Flood in the days of Noah (Genesis 7:8). He remembered that more than eight centuries later God explained to Moses the differences between the clean and unclean creatures (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14). And that Isaiah prophesied about the time of judgment after the millennium: "The Lord will judge by fire, with fire he will test all living men, and many will be slain by the Lord; those who hallow and purify themselves in garden-rites, one after another in a magic ring, those who eat the flesh of pigs and rats and all vile vermin,. shall meet their end, one and all, says the Lord, for I know their deeds and their thoughts" (Isaiah 65:16-18, NEB).
What did it mean?
That prophecy left no doubt in Peter's mind! The vision he experienced was not about eating unclean animals and insects and birds of prey. Then what did it mean? At this point the Spirit gave Peter the answer! "... Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down, and accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them" (verses 19-20, RSV). Peter quickly understood the meaning of the vision. He went to the gate to meet the three men and took them in as guests that night. Next day he set out, accompanied by several brethren, with his three guests for Caesarea. When Peter entered the home of Cornelius he found many persons gathered to hear him. The first words of Peter to the assembled group make clear Peter's understanding of the vision: "... 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 man common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection..." (verses 28-29, RSV). There is God's answer to Peter! "God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean." The vision is not about eating unclean foods.
In the days of the apostles social intercourse with gentiles — Cornelius and the three men sent to Peter were gentiles — rendered a Jew ceremonially unclean, according to the tradition of the elders. Even entering a gentile house (for example, John 18:28) or handling articles belonging to gentiles did so. Bread, milk or olive oil coming from gentile farms and marketplaces could not be eaten by an observant Jew. Flesh offered in sacrifice to idols and that in any case contained blood was forbidden. To sit down and eat with a gentile was unthinkable. In this environment in Palestine in the first century the apostles lived and worked. No wonder Jesus needed to instruct Peter about social contact with uncircumcised gentile — whom God was calling to eternal life! While Peter was explaining the forgiveness of sins through the name of Jesus Christ to Cornelius and these assembled with him, "... the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles" (verses 44-45, RSV).
There is God's answer! "God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean." The vision is not about eating unclean foods.
Notice it — for upwards of 10 years after the crucifixion the apostles had gone only to Jews and the circumcised Samaritans. No uncircumcised gentile had been called until the moment God called Cornelius. And the Jewish Christians who accompanied Peter north from Joppa to Caesarea were astounded that it was even possible for a gentile to be converted and receive the Holy Spirit and the gift of eternal life. No wonder Peter had to have a vision, in which a voice from heaven spoke three times, to know what to do when the three gentiles knocked at the gate of the home where Peter was residing. This event was the most significant turning point in the history of the Church of God.
Opposition in the Church
The account continues in the 11th chapter of Acts. "Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, 'Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?'" Can you imagine in the New Testament Church of God men criticizing the very chief apostle? Yet here it is! "But Peter began and explained to them in order: 'I was in the city of Joppa praying: and in a trance I saw a vision, something descending, like a great sheet, ret down from heaven by four corners; and it came down to me. Looking at it closely I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And 1 heard a voice saying to me, "Rise, Peter: kill and eat." But 1 said, "No, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth." But the voice answered a second time from heaven, "What God has cleansed you must not call common." This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. At that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the 'Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction...'" Peter concluded, "'If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?' When they [the critics] heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God saying, 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life'" (Acts 11:1-18, RSV). The meaning of the vision is clear. It was given to make plain that gentiles who were uncircumcised were not to be counted as socially impure. God is able to clean up their hearts and purify them as He is also able to clean up and purify the hearts of the circumcised Jews. The New Testament Church took years to make this a living principle. It was not finally settled once and for all until in assembled council, nearly 10 years later, Peter declared that gentiles do not have to be circumcised to receive the gift of eternal life (Acts 15). The question of eating unclean meats was not the issue in Peter's vision. If it had been, then God made a great mistake by not including "sea life" in the sheet sent to Peter in vision on that housetop. It is not lions and vultures and snakes that most professing Christians clamor for. It is sea creatures — oyster, shrimp, turtle, lobster, eel, octopus, whale — that they crave. And these are the very creatures not included in the vision! Read it for yourself — Acts 10:12 and 11:6.