Most Christians have heard the story (in Acts chapter 10) about Peter having a vision of a large sheet being lowered from heaven; it being full of all sorts of animals and birds; and he being told to ‘rise and eat.’ And most Christians have heard that the vision was given to show Peter that he could eat anything, including pork. And that is the end of the discussion.
But is that what the vision is really about? Let’s look at the whole story. (By the way, the vision itself is in Acts 10:9-16).
First, note that the story of Peter’s vision is given in the middle of the story about the Roman centurion Cornelius, and his vision. In Biblical literature, this is a clue that the two stories have something to do with one another.
Next, take a look at Peter’s initial reaction to the vision. Peter exclaimed, “By no means, Lord: for I have never eaten anything this is common or unclean.” Acts 10:14 (ESV). Apparently, Peter was either never told he could eat anything, or he never understood that he had been told.
And what was Peter’s immediate reaction after the vision was over. It’s written, “Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision … might mean.” Acts 10:17 (ESV). In other words, he wasn’t immediately thinking that the vision had anything to do with food.
The Biblical narrative then relates that the servants sent by Cornelius are at the door. This is another hint that the two stories are interrelated.
Then Peter, in talking with Cornelius and the people with him, states,
“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.” Acts 10:28 (ESV)
When did God show Peter this? The whole context of the story points to Peter’s vision. Add to that the realization that the ‘law’ Peter is referring to is not one of God’s laws!
Lastly, take a look at Acts 11:1-18. The other apostles and brothers in Christ had heard what had happened, that Peter had visited with, and even eaten with, Gentiles, and they asked Peter about it. Peter then related the vision he had seen.
And what happens next? Acts 11:18 states,
“When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’ “
Not one of them thought the vision had anything to do with calling unclean animals now fit to be eaten. It didn’t even occur to them that the vision had anything to do with food!
So why did God use all manner of unclean animals to show Peter that no person is to be called unclean? I don’t know. Why does God so often compare people to sheep, or even sheep and goats?
Perhaps it is a subtle reminder that He is the one that has created all things, and He is the one who dictates which things are to be considered clean and which are to be considered unclean.
It is also a strong reminder to not put words in God’s mouth. God said clearly,
“You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it…” Deuteronomy 4:2 (ESV)
God gave Peter a very graphic reminder through this vision. God never called gentiles (as a whole group) unclean!
Shalom. – Yosef