If You Had Seen Peter's Vision...

Did Christ,by a vision, make all unclean animals, reptiles and birds of prey good for food?

By Herman L. Hoeh

Suppose you had lived in the days of the original apostles, and you were hungry at noontime as Peter was. The meal was not yet ready as you were praying in private upon the housetop.

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: I 1-12, Revised Standard Version).

And suppose, further, a voice from heaven ordered you, "Rise . .. kill and eat" (verse 13). What would you have replied?

Would you have decided that swine, rabbits, dogs, ants, snails and ravens had somehow suddenly 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 unclean creatures"? Peter, Jesus' chief apostle, had just such a vision (Acts 10:9-16).  Most Christians have casually read this account. They have assumed Peter decided, on hearing "Rise, Peter; kill and eat," 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 are 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 begin in Joppa at all. Nor was there any controversy in the Church over clean and unclean meats that needed settling.

The account begins in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Palestine. Stationed in Caesarea (by the sea) was a considerable Roman garrison. Among its officers was Cornelius, commander of a hundred men.

Cornelius was "a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always" (Acts 10:2). 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 send for Simon whose surname is Peter" (verse 5).

Cornelius obeyed. He "called two of his household servants and a devout soldier ... So when he had explained all these things 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 "were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air" (verse 12). 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.

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 to the Christ, "'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 I 5- 16, RSV).

Why do you suppose the voice spoke three times to Peter? Let us read on:

"Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon's house, and stood before the gate. And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there. While Peter thought about the vision , the Spirit said to him ... " (verses 17-19).

Notice , "Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant." Jesus' chief apostle did not jump to hasty conclusions.

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 I I 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 66:16-18, 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 could it mean?

At this point the Spirit gave Peter the answer! "Behold, three men are seeking you. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them" (Acts 10: 19-20). 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 about people - gentiles - who were considered by the Jews as unclean, not about eating unclean foods.

First-century environment

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 (John 18:28) or '" handling articles belonging to the 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 gentiles 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 upon all those who heard the word.

And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also" (verses 44-45).

What Did Jesus Mean- 'Purging All Meats?'

Sin is spiritual. That fact is emphasized throughout the New Testament. The Bible definition of sin is this: "Sin is the transgression of the law" (I John 3:4, Authorized Version) .

The penalty for violation of God's spiritual law is death - not the first death, which will be followed by a resurrection, but the second or eternal death in the "lake of fire" (Revelation 20:14).

Now the accidental eating of forbidden or unclean food is not a transgression of this spiritual law. It becomes sin if one lusts for food that is unclean and forbidden! Nevertheless, to violate the revealed law of clean and unclean meats does bring the penalty of disease, pain, sickness and sometimes the first death.

That is what Jesus made plain, as recorded in Mark 7:14-23. Note especially verses 18-20 from the Authorized Version:

"And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do yenot perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats [Greek: broma. "food"]? And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man."

Here Jesus was speaking of spiritual defilement, not physical health. Not that which enters into a person's mouth, but the evil that comes out of his heart, defiles the person spiritually. What defiles the person - and he is speaking of defiling the person spiritually, not injuring the body - is transgression of the Ten Commandments - evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications , murders, thefts, covetousness, blasphemy (verses 21-22) .

Jesus was making a point concerning spiritual defilements, not physical health. However, on the physical level, He was referring (verse 19) to particles of dirt that might get on the food from unwashed hands - particles that simply pass through the alimentary system undigested and without harm to the person. That is, the body naturally eliminates - "purges" - any dirt that may not have been washed off food . Jesus was not here speaking of clean or unclean flesh foods at all.

 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.

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.

This event was the most significant turning point in the history of the Church of God.

The meaning is clear

The account continues in Acts 11: "Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter went up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, 'You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!'" (verses 1-3).

Peter told about the vision he had seen and described what had happened with Cornelius and Cornelius' household. Then Peter concluded, "'If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus  Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?' When they [the critics] heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life'" (Acts 11:17-18).

 The meaning of the vision is clear. It meant 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 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, who say they are Christians, clamor for. It is sea creatures - oyster, shrimp, turtle, lobster, eel, octopus, catfish - that they crave. And these are the very creatures not included in the vision! Read it for yourself - Acts 10: 12 and 11 :6.