Peter’s vision of the sheet full of unclean animals is seen by many as conclusive evidence that God has annulled the Levitical dietary laws. Such an interpretation of the text may appear reasonable until one notices that neither Peter nor any of the other Apostles ever held such a view. Could it be that the early disciples saw something in the context which we do not, details enabling them to see God’s message entirely differently?
A careful look at the biblical and historical context reveals many difficulties with the traditional interpretation, and a much different understanding of what God was doing in the lives of His early Jewish servants in order to get the Gospel to the nations.
In the Bible it is written: “And (Peter) became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, and saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, what God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.” (Acts 10:10-16)
This text is very often used to teach that the dietary laws found in the Law of Moses, the Torah, are no longer binding on the New Testament Christian. On first reading it seems very compelling: this was the one text I used to think was unanswerable, that one could not carefully consider this text and still maintain that the dietary laws are still binding. However, after thinking through the text much more carefully I no longer feel this way, yet I sympathize with those who still think as I once did. It is certainly not an easy text to interpret consistently with the rest of God’s Word.
Even though the primary purpose of the vision is evidently not to change Peter’s mind about these dietary laws, it does seem like God is encouraging Peter to accept Gentiles based on His own annulment of the dietary laws. Through the vision God is definitely challenging Peter’s understanding and application of the dietary laws because it is somehow impacting his willingness to preach the Gospel to Gentiles. God is correcting Peter’s understanding on multiple levels during this process, and we must be very careful with the text in order to understand what God is doing. In order to see God’s message one must look very carefully at the entire scriptural and historical context.
A Common Perspective
Let us begin by noting the traditional interpretation of this text, which is that God was revealing to Peter that the Mosaic ceremonial laws, and in particular the dietary laws found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, are no longer binding for the New Testament Church, and therefore that any hesitation on the part of believers to interact with others for fear of becoming ceremonially unclean is no longer appropriate. A quick check in most any good evangelical Bible commentary will confirm that this view is very widely held. In fact, most Christians come to the text before us with this presupposition already firmly entrenched, that the dietary laws (as well as any other Old Testament laws of a ceremonial or civil nature) have indeed been suspended and are no longer obligatory. From such an orientation it is much easier to find the traditional interpretation reasonable. This may in fact be the only real motivation to accept such a view: it certainly is commonly held.
The key text used to support this position is: “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” (vs 15) From this statement we may reasonably conclude that God has, at some point, cleansed at least some of the animals in the sheet such that these animals were fit for Peter to eat. Otherwise, if we do not conclude this, the entire context is incoherent and confusing: we cannot simply gloss over the whole narrative, acting as if God has not called some of the animals in the sheet fit to eat. He certainly did so. Peter was calling some of the animals “common,” or ceremonially unclean, and God was correcting him for making this statement. There is no other legitimate way to read the text. Whether in a vision or no, God was putting His approval on our consuming at least one of the animals present in that sheet. This is a given. What shall we do with it?
In order to hold to the traditional view with certainty it is necessary to presume that all of the animals in the sheet were forbidden in the Levitical dietary laws. This is required in order to hold the traditional view because if any of the animals in the sheet are sanctified for human consumption in the Levitical dietary laws, then one cannot conclude from this text that God’s command to Peter to eat one of the animals in the sheet actually contradicts His dietary laws: for in that case Peter may easily have selected a clean animal to satisfy his hunger.
In support of this assumption, that none of the animals in the sheet were clean, it is clear from the text that Peter believes very strongly that all of the animals in the sheet are unfit for him to eat. If Peter is actually correct, and all of the animals in the sheet are forbidden under Mosaic Law, then the traditional view is necessarily implied: it is a logical conclusion that one may deduce from the text. If one starts with the assumption that all of the animals in the sheet are unclean then it follows that either  God has already annulled some part, if not all of the Mosaic dietary laws, or  God is telling Peter to sin. Those are our choices.
However, if Peter’s assumption is incorrect, and one or more of the animals in the sheet were not forbidden by God’s dietary law, then the traditional view of the text may be shown to be unreasonable due to numerous inherent difficulties.
Problems With The Traditional View
None of the Apostles Held It
Perhaps the most obvious difficulty with making such an assumption, and taking the traditional view as a consequence, is that there is no indication that Peter, the one initially receiving, interpreting and reporting the vision, ever held such a view: Peter never does, throughout the narrative of scripture, indicate that God has changed or annulled the dietary laws. God’s purpose in giving the revelation to Peter, to free him from a belief that hindered his witness of Messiah outside the Jewish community, was certainly achieved. Yet throughout this major course correction in his life, Peter never suggested to anyone that he had any sense God was repealing or annulling any of the Law. Peter did not appear to understand this to be the meaning or intent of the vision, or even a corollary to be seen in it. Neither is there any indication that any of the other Apostles ever interpreted the vision in this manner. It appears that, after hearing of the vision, all of the early Jewish believers continued keeping the entire Mosaic Law, and they did so zealously for their entire lives. (Ac 21:20-26)
God Approves Eating Detestable Things?
We have then at the outset a reasonable motivation to reconsider the implications of this traditional view of the text, and its inherent assumption, a bit more carefully. The traditional view is, in fact, a claim that all animals which God had once told His people to abstain from with abhorrence (De 14:3) are suddenly offered to them as food. Now, unless one is also willing to take a further step, and either  accept the notion that there has also been a very real, substantial physical change in the nature of the unclean animals themselves, or  accept the idea that the dietary prohibitions were completely and entirely arbitrary, that there was actually no inherent physical (or spiritual) benefit in observing them, and that God’s intent that His people view these types of animals with abhorrence and disgust in their diet was capricious and whimsical at best — then the traditional view is also a claim that God is saying: “I now approve the consumption of detestable things.” Our suspicion should be roused in this: something appears to be amiss.
God’s Actions Appear Arbitrary and Confusing
It is certainly clear that Peter did not think any of the animals in the sheet were fit to eat, and that as far as we know he remained ignorant of any change in the dietary laws for the remainder of his life. However, God’s treatment of Peter in commanding him to eat what he thought was forbidden was done in such a manner as to rebuke Peter, to implicate him of inappropriate thought and behavior, as Peter repeatedly refused to obey God’s command.
God repeatedly and directly forbade Peter to persist in this kind of response, and Peter continued in it until the end of the vision in spite of God’s commands. This is both confrontational and corrective behavior on God’s part. Yet without clear revelation prior to this time (or afterwards, as far as the Apostles were concerned) that God’s standards had changed, God’s actions seem very unreasonable.
There is no other text in scripture to which we might refer as a similar example, where God rebuked what was at one time godly behavior, treating the same action and motivation firstly as holy and then afterwards as unholy, without first explaining Himself very clearly. This seems, on closer inspection, very inconsistent and confusing.
God Tempting Peter to Sin?
If every single animal in the sheet is biblically unclean, God is then commanding Peter to do something which God has previously told him not to do, and which Peter himself would be very tempted to do in his natural flesh. God is doing this without any prior explanation or indication that the dietary rules have been annulled. This then becomes an entirely unique context: Peter is ravenously hungry, and God is telling Peter to go ahead and satiate himself by violating His own direct commands, clearly revealed in Scripture. God is commanding Peter to consume that which he has obediently trained himself for a lifetime to abstain from with abhorrence. What was once defined as ungodly by clear revelation from God is now being demanded of Peter by God. If this is not tempting someone to sin, then what is?
Yet some would argue that God’s temptation of Abraham was similar, and that this is sometimes God’s way, to tempt us to sin. But James clearly states that God never does this (Ja 1:13-16), and that such enticement always comes from the flesh, so we must be very careful whenever it looks like God is tempting someone to sin.
In Abraham’s case, the command to kill his beloved son is not necessarily tempting, or an enticement, to get Abraham to sin. Abraham evidently has no natural inclination to kill his son — this is not something Abraham wants to do. God’s temptation of Abraham is distinctly different: it is a test of Abraham’s willingness to obey God, not an enticement of Abraham to sin.
God does not reveal any other possible exceptions to this pattern, scenarios where it looks like God is tempting, enticing or luring someone into sin, so we must be very careful here in order to do justice to the text. If anything is contrary to the nature of God, then such temptation certainly is. If all of the animals in the sheet before Peter are unclean and unfit for him to eat based on Levitical dietary laws, then we actually have before us evidence of a contradiction in Scripture: this would then definitely be a case of God telling someone to violate Torah in a setting where they would be very tempted to do so in their natural fleshly desires. This holds even if the dietary laws have been changed since Peter had never had any opportunity prior to this event to learn about this change to Torah, and would have been acting consistently with what had been revealed up to that point.
Basically, in summary, either some of the animals in the sheet are biblically clean and Peter actually should have chosen one of them to eat as God directed him to, or we have a clear instance where God is tempting someone to sin and therefore a contradiction in the Word of God: there are no other options here.
Contrary to Divine Nature
In fact, the very idea that God would ever do such a thing … change His ways or His laws, that He would ever begin to accept and condone that which He had previously and formally and clearly forbidden as an abomination, is completely foreign to the entire context of the Bible, and contradicts it in many places. Such a view must imply one of several implausibilities:  God has been capricious, arbitrary — or even malicious, vengeful and spiteful toward His people in giving them the Law (as the early church father Jerome clearly taught) — in that He is prone to giving commands and injunctions to His people which are not inherently and intrinsically good (Ro 7:12), or  that God Himself changes and grows in His moral nature over time, indicating that He is now, and has always been, morally deficient and incomplete. (Ja 1:17) Neither of these implications are reasonable; they are each essentially blasphemous. Thus the assumption inherent in claiming the traditional interpretation of this text in Acts can only be brought to the holy text of scripture as a presumption, it cannot actually be found here. Further this presupposition must be brought rather thoughtlessly, without due consideration of its straightforward implications regarding the fundamental nature of the Godhead.
Contrary to Explicit Messianic Teaching
In case we might miss the import of the general context of scripture and the implications of the traditional view just noted, Jesus’ teaching on this topic is quite clear: these dietary laws, as part of the entire body of the Mosaic Law, are of a profoundly permanent, nature – as permanent as earth and heaven; anyone violating them is considered least in the kingdom. “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:17-19) It is clear that Jesus never encourages anyone to violate the dietary laws, or any of the other Mosaic laws, and that He pre-empts any attempt to teach otherwise with a clear and compelling denunciation. The Apostles, who should have known the teachings of their Messiah as well as anyone, as we have noted, appear to have lived consistently with this admonition their entire lives, long after Peter’s vision on the rooftop. They evidently never had any idea that Jesus would ever annul any portion of the Law before destroying the cosmos. If Jesus was in fact intending, shortly after this discourse, to demand that Peter start violating some of these laws, as the traditional view claims, we indeed have a tremendous inconsistency in the divine nature.
Find it strange then that we should accept as a foundational construct of Christianity something that Jesus Christ never actually taught, and that none of His twelve disciples ever actually believed. The idea that the Mosaic Law is no longer binding was, as far as we know, foreign to the early followers of Christ: they never believed this. In fact, Christ warned us not to think this way and clearly denounced this concept as a lie. These facts must be pondered very carefully as we try to understand what happened to Peter on the rooftop.
What Was Cleansed and When Is Unclear
Further, we may observe that God has never, even in this vision, clearly stated such a thing, that He has changed or repealed any of the dietary laws, such that it is now permissible to eat these kinds of animals. This text merely states that God has, at some point, cleansed certain animals for the purpose of eating. When this cleansing occurred we are not told, and nothing in the text indicates that God had recently cleansed any more animals for eating, or that there was any actual change in the Law. Further, we don’t know which animals in the mix were cleansed, or how to identify them. The text does not name any specific species of animal, nor does it state that all of the animals in the sheet were cleansed. Further, as we shall see, the wording of the text actually seems to imply that only some of the animals in the sheet were cleansed. Yet, in order to apply the text in any practical manner while holding the traditional view, we must assume that ALL unclean animals have been cleansed, and this is, again, an assumption that appears to violate both the immediate and the general context.
Injustice to Context
Finally, the traditional view does not do any real justice to the remaining context, for it does not provide any reasonable motivation for Peter’s ultimate conclusion that he should not call any man common or unclean. (Ac 10:28) Other than the mere juxtaposition of these concepts in the narrative, where is the formal bridge from dietary laws to interacting with supposedly unclean people? Ceremonial uncleanness is entirely unrelated to touching living animals of any kind, and any uncleanness acquired from an unclean animal may not be transferred to others merely by physical contact. How then is eating an unclean animal related to being in Gentile company? God is certainly not abolishing the very concept of unclean people, for He mentions unclean people after this time. (1Co 7:14, Ep 5:3-5)
The above difficulties with the traditional interpretation appear insurmountable, implying that the traditional approach to the text is unreasonable. However, we shall see that a presumption that all the animals in the sheet are unclean, which is required in order to imply the traditional view, is at best an argument from silence. There does happen to be strong evidence in the text to support the presence of clean animals in the mix. This fact helps to integrate the event with the entire biblical and historical context quite nicely, and it avoids the above difficulties.
To get a proper understanding of the passage it is important to look carefully at the entire context, giving particular attention to detail which has not yet been incorporated into our overall understanding of the text.
Purpose of the Vision
Notice first that the extended context involves God’s desire for Peter in particular, and for Jewish believers in general, to reach out to Gentiles with the Gospel. God has clearly told them to do so: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.” (Mt 28:19) However, at this time the Jewish believers are all being hindered by something; none of the Jewish Christians are reaching out to Gentiles. “Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.” (Ac 11:19) What was it that was orienting the early Jewish Christian mindset in this way? The answer is clearly stated in the immediate context, and must be fully understood in order to interpret the passage correctly.
The Underlying Problem
Peter openly states the cause of this behavior later in the story, explaining what it was that he had been believing which had been hindering his witness to Gentiles: “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation.” (vs 28a) Jewish people commonly believed that Gentiles could not be right with God without first converting to Judaism, that Gentiles were defiled and unclean by definition, and that God therefore forbad Jews from interacting with them. Where did they get this concept?
One might presume from Peter’s statement that the Jews got this thinking from Scripture itself because he calls such behavior unlawful, but such is not the case. Search the scripture: there is no command anywhere in the Bible suggesting that God’s people should avoid interacting with those outside the kingdom, or that only Jews can be in a right relationship with God. God never intended for His people to live in isolation from the world; rather, God intended for them to engage the world and be a witness to it. This has been true from the beginning of time, and God is explicit in the Word about it. (Ro 15:9-12)
Yet Peter had accepted and obeyed traditional Jewish teaching on this point, and as a result he was neglecting a clear command of his Lord Jesus Christ to take the gospel to the nations. It is this problem that God is going after: Peter’s thinking about it is being corrected here: “God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (vs 28b) The key question to ask is this: What was it about the vision which suggested this new understanding to Peter? This is, perhaps, a more difficult question, and requires some basic understanding of Jewish culture and tradition as well as a more careful look at the immediate context.
Significance of the Sheet
To help us understand this it is important to notice that the animals in the vision are being transported in a sheet suspended by four corners, not on a hard flat surface like a board, as one would normally expect. The significance of this mode of transportation is that it virtually guaranteed that the animals within it were all touching one another.
The nature of a sheet is such that it is flexible and gives way under the weight of any heavy objects placed upon it. Objects in a sheet tend to gravitate toward the lowest point in the sheet, toward the center. In such a state normal living animals would be in constant movement and would tend to bunch up together in the center, stumbling and crawling over each other in a writhing, chaotic mass. In viewing such a scene, it would have appeared to Peter that any animal in the sheet had been in regular contact with most all of the other animals in the sheet. This is not a peripheral aspect of the narrative; it is a central detail that must be intelligently integrated into our understanding of the text.
“All Manner” Is Key
It is also very helpful to look more carefully at the nature of the animals being transported in the sheet. Since it is clear that there are unclean animals in the sheet, and since the scripture does not explicitly state otherwise, the traditional view claims that the sheet only contains unclean animals. As we have seen, the traditional view is actually implied if this is the case, and so it is certainly convenient for proponents of this view to make such an assertion.
However, the descriptive detail provided in the text, while not mentioning specific species, includes “wild beasts.” This wording, pointing out specifically that among the many kinds of four-legged animals there were “wild” beasts, suggests by way of contrast that the mix also included many types of domesticated animals (from which the “wild” beasts are distinct), many of which certainly might have been biblically clean.
Further, a key phrase in verse 12, all manner of fourfooted beasts, is understood by Vincent (Vincent’s Word Studies) to mean “all the four-footed beasts. Without exception, clean and unclean. Not, of very many kinds.” Vincent therefore, from the grammar itself, reasons that we should not presume all of the animals in the sheet were unclean. Since clean/unclean was a primary classification, or kind of animal, (Ge 7:2, , 8:20) it would certainly be unreasonable to describe a mix including only unclean animals as having “all manner” of animals, for a major kind (“manner”) of animal, i.e. a clean animal, would not have been present.
Thus it does not appear unreasonable to assume that there was at least one clean animal in the mix that would have been biblical for Peter to eat, an animal that God had “cleansed” long before the vision occurred. In fact, the presumption that Peter could not have selected a clean animal from the sheet is evidently unreasonable.
This insight is critical for us in understanding God’s response to Peter during the vision: if Peter’s abstinence involved clean animals, animals which God had formally sanctified for eating in His Word (1Ti 4:5), and Peter’s perspective was corrupted to the degree that he perceived his abstinence to be both commanded and commended by God, such a posture would have been entirely inconsistent with Torah (God’s Law), and it would then make sense for God to resist him in it, as we observe Him doing.
When God Cleansed
Before the Flood
God gave animals to Man to eat just after the Great Flood (Ge 9:3), so it is evident that prior to this time only plants were eaten. However, even prior to the Flood, it is evident that Man had already identified certain animals as clean even though they were not yet given as food, and even though there was no indication that they ever would be eaten. (Ge 1:29 God presumed this understanding by instructing Noah to take two of each animal species into the ark, with the exception of these clean animals, which He told Noah to take by sevens. (Ge 7:2 This implies Noah had a clear understanding of the differences between clean and unclean animals, and that he was able to clearly identify the clean animals. This shows us that certain animals have been created as clean from the very beginning of time; they have never been unclean but were in a sense cleansed by being designed that way, produced and rendered clean from the very start. This is very significant.
After the Flood
After the Flood, when God gave Man animals to eat, we might say in a manner of speaking that God cleansed the clean animals for the purpose of eating by declaring them fit for Man to eat, and thus removing any obstacle or barrier that might have kept Man from consuming them. And, just as God had not told Man exactly what plants to eat when He declared herbs and fruit were food (Ge 1:29, and so Man had to figure out which plants were appropriate to eat and how to eat them, similarly after the Flood, God was not entirely explicit in His decree about which animals were permissible to eat, so Man also had to figure out which animals were fit to eat and how to eat them.
However, in the context of this seemingly ambiguous decree, it should have been very evident to Noah which animals God intended for him to consume: there was a very big hint provided in their very numbers and in the way they were classified. The very notion of a clean animal implies that animals not so classified are unclean. Further, had Noah or his family eaten any of the unclean animals shortly after the Flood, that species would not have been able to reproduce and would therefore have become extinct, which was clearly contrary to God’s intention. Even if the family had waited until the unclean animals had produced some offspring, taking any significant number of these offspring could have severely limited, or perhaps even crippled the reproductive potential of that species.
Noting that God had clearly provided on the ark a spare of each kind of clean animal and of each kind of bird, upon his departure from the ark Noah was quickly moved to offer up an enormous sacrifice – one of every kind of bird and one of every kind of clean animal (Ge 8:20), evidently leaving three distinct living pair of each kind of clean animal and fowl to reproduce. With this kind of start, the clean animals would have been multiplying after the Flood in exponentially greater numbers than their unclean counterparts: a clear indication of which kinds of animals God intended for people to eat.
Progressive Revelation at Sinai
As God progressively revealed more and more of His ways to Mankind over time, He formalized this distinction between clean and unclean animals at Sinai, as well as formally introducing the relevant prohibition, forbidding the eating of unclean animals. (Le 11, De 14) Yet this was evidently a mere formalization of what God had clearly revealed to Man prior to and after the Flood, not the introduction of an entirely new concept. These dietary laws did not originate at Sinai in a vacuum, they were merely formalized and encoded based on earlier general revelation.
Therefore, from this text in Acts alone, presuming that God was annulling the dietary laws at the time of Peter’s vision is more than a statement that He was annulling Levitical dietary law given merely to the Jews at Sinai. It is a statement that God was arbitrarily changing universal laws that had essentially been in place, at least in spirit, since Creation. This is a different matter entirely.
Yet, as we have noted, if there were any clean animals in the sheet and Peter was reluctant to eat one of them for any reason, the reference here in Acts need not be of a New Testament event in which God was eliminating the timeless distinction between clean and unclean animals; it could easily be understood that God was pointing Peter back to His cleansing of certain animals from the very beginning, and that Peter should not persist in his denial of this fact.
Types of Clean and Unclean
Now Peter, being an instructed Jew, was fully aware of God’s dietary laws, and laws relating generally to ceremonial uncleanness, and he carefully observed these laws along with all of his Jewish brethren. Peter also knew that there are really two distinct types of “clean\unclean” things described in God’s Law. There are things that are intrinsically unclean, which are always unclean by nature, such as unclean animals. He also understood that there is no ritual or ceremony which can make such things clean: they are unclean by definition. (Le 11) There are also ceremonially unclean things, which become unclean by some means and may be made clean again by the passing of time and/or a certain ritual. For example, a new mother is considered (ceremonially) unclean, and becomes clean again after a certain number of days and by offering a sacrifice. (Le 12)
Two Greek Terms
Further, it is evident from the text that the sheet included much, much more food than Peter could have eaten at the time to satisfy his hunger, implying that there was an inherent design in the event for Peter to choose something: Peter was supposed to make a choice among the animals, selecting one of them (or at most a few small animals) to kill and eat. In considering his options, Peter used two words to describe the kinds of animals he observed in the sheet: koinos (KJV “common”) and akathartos (KJV “unclean”). The first of these words, koinos, was sometimes translated defiled, (e.g. Mk 7:2) describing something that was at one point ceremonially clean and which had become ceremonially unclean. The second term, akathartos, was often used to describe intrinsically unclean things, like “unclean spirits” (i.e. demons/devils, Mt 10:1, etc.), which could not be ritually cleansed. It therefore appears that Peter recognized that there were two different options available to him to choose from: animals that were intrinsically unclean (which Levitical law forbade him to eat) and other animals in the sheet that had become, at least in Peter’s mind, “contaminated,” but which he would have considered clean and fit to eat had they not become contaminated. Peter’s use of both of these words to describe the animals in the sheet provides further evidence that there were some clean animals in the sheet, which Peter likely presumed to be ceremonially unclean for some reason.
God’s Focus on Ceremonial Uncleanness
It is interesting to note here that God, in response to Peter, appears to contradict him only in his description of what Peter thought were the ceremonially unclean animals: “What God hath cleansed (katharizo or made intrinsically clean), that call not thou common (koinoo or ceremonially unclean).” (vs 15) God was saying, “I have made some of these animals clean so that you can eat them. Stop saying they are unclean!” It is significant that God does not resist Peter’s description of the intrinsically unclean animals, only his refusal to eat any of what Peter thought were the common, or ceremonially unclean ones.
It is also very instructive to note that there is no part of God’s Law (the Torah) indicating that intrinsic uncleanness may be transferred. In particular, according to Torah, a clean animal does not become unclean by contacting an unclean animal. However, the Jews had added many laws and traditions (called Oral Torah) to Torah, teaching all Jews to avoid all associations with Gentiles due to their presumed inherent uncleanness.
The general idea behind the teaching was that ceremonial uncleanness was transferred through physical contact with Gentiles, who were considered inherently unclean, such that companying with them would contaminate a Jew. This teaching pervaded Jewish thought at the time and had been internalized by the Apostles. It was actually a formal hindrance and a stumbling block to them, inhibiting all of them from taking the Gospel to the nations.
Peter’s Actions Inconsistent with Torah
In the vision, God consistently treated Peter in a manner that suggests Peter should have known better than to resist God’s command to eat one of the clean animals. God repeatedly corrected Peter for his actions, telling him to stop resisting Him, without explaining why the action was wrong. God was basically claiming that at least one of the animals in the sheet was in fact intrinsically clean (katharizo), and God was repeatedly pointing it out to Peter as if Peter should have already known this. This was a claim on God’s part that Peter’s belief about at least one of the animals in the sheet was incorrect, and that Peter already had revelation from God to equip him to discern this fact. It was therefore inappropriate for Peter to resist God’s clear instruction to him: Peter should have known better and God treated him accordingly.
As to why Peter was acting this way, we have a significant clue provided in how Peter eventually resolved the entire matter: he did so by rejecting that part of Jewish tradition, Oral Torah, that was inconsistent with God’s word and His revealed will: Peter eventually understood that Gentiles were not inherently and intrinsically unclean. This concept must therefore be at the heart of the matter.
All of the disciples should have known from their Master’s teaching not to implicitly obey Oral Torah, and to question any inferences drawn from it, especially when this contradicted God’s Word. Jesus clearly taught that Oral Torah was not binding when it contradicted Torah, and gave many examples where it did. (Mt 15:3-6) Peter, recalling this in the face of God’s consistent rebukes during the vision, evidently saw an inconsistency that moved him to question Oral Torah in its teachings regarding Jewish interaction with non-Jews. Whatever it was that Peter did see, he eventually concluded that his behavior in observing the Jewish teachings to avoid the company of Gentiles had been inappropriate and that he should no longer presume that anyone was “common or unclean” simply because of their nationality.
Yet God’s explicit motivation for confronting Peter in such a manner remains open: Why was God going after Peter in this way, through such a strange vision, as Gentiles were approaching the house wanting to speak with him? What is the clear connection between the dietary laws and Jewish evangelism?
Since there is no law in the Torah itself indicating that a Jew should not company with a Gentile or go into his house, this “unlawful” concept must therefore have been a reference to Oral Torah. Jewish Rabbis had derived from the dietary laws, and from other laws defining ceremonial uncleanness, their own laws forbidding Jews to interact with non-Jews, to enter their houses or to keep company with them. Further, they insisted that only Jews could be in the family of God and that for anyone to be right with God they must first convert to Judaism. They also taught that their man-made laws and traditions were equivalent to, and even superseded scripture, and most all of the early Jews were of this mindset. It was to such laws that Peter must have been referring in his statement to Cornelius, “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation.” (vs 28)
In the context of walking in reverence for such ungodly man-made regulations, Peter is confronted and challenged by God in an unusual test of character. Peter becomes irrationally hungry, yea supernaturally ravenous, and is pacing about on the rooftop waiting for his hosts to put together a quick meal so that he can satiate himself. As he anticipates the meal, God presents Peter with a sight that is absolutely shocking to behold — a sight which one would never see in actual experience: a tangled, writhing mass of all kinds of beasts, birds, lizards, spiders, bugs, rats … creatures that make Peter’s skin crawl in disgust when he considers eating them … all mixed in with deer, sheep, goats, doves: delightful cuisine under normal circumstances. Yet this is anything but normal. It is truly bizarre! An unforgettable spectacle.
Peter is at first naturally tempted to go in after the clean animals and catch one, but hesitates when he starts observing how they are all in such close contact with each other, animals he is drooling over tangled up with those that he detests as abominable. A conflict arises in his heart that in satisfying his appetite in such an unusual context he must be in violation of some moral principle … but he isn’t quite sure what it is. In his hesitation God urges him forward, but Peter cannot resolve the emotional conflict in his heart and he resists. Something about these clean animals is just too messed up. God must be testing him to see how pure he is willing to be even when he is so hungry. God rebukes Peter and urges him forward again, but Peter, in unholy self-denial, persists in his ignorant resistance. The conflict continues until God finally gives up on Peter and takes the animals away. It is certainly a plausible scenario.
The possible connection between these man-made, anti-Gentile laws and the confrontation over dietary law in the vision is perhaps now more evident. Peter, during the vision, evidently inferred from the general sentiment of Oral Torah that entanglement and physical association with uncleanness implies the transfer of such defilement, and therefore that it was inappropriate for him to eat the clean animals due to their contact with the unclean ones as they are all bunched up together in the center of the sheet. Though this kind of prohibition was not necessarily formally taught in the context of dietary regulation in Jewish tradition at the time (after all, it is evidently absurd given any practical reflection, the likes of which even the most ardent legalist is unlikely to formally accept), it is the kind of mistake that is very easy for people to make, especially under duress, and even more so when they have a strong habit of denying themselves those things, even good things, they might otherwise long for in the flesh. It is much easier for a legalist to disobey our Lord out of a sense of self-righteous humility and self-abasement than in outright rebellion. (Col 2:23)
It is extremely tempting for legalists (those who derive their sense of well-being and acceptance with God from mechanical obedience to a formal code of law or ritual), to extrapolate from healthy principles to absurd and unhealthy ones. For instance, I have personally observed that wealthy, observant Jews may commonly have two separate dishwashers in their homes in order to separately clean items used for meat and dairy products. This practice has its roots in a prohibition in Torah to not to boil a baby goat in the milk of its own mother. (Ex 23:19) Jewish tradition extrapolates from this original concept, insisting that milk and meat should never be cooked together, or even consumed in the same meal. Therefore, in response, many Jews further insist that the utensils used in preparing meals and cleaning up after them be managed entirely separately based on whether the meal contained meat or dairy, and therefore take the trouble to maintain two entirely separate sets of dishes and utensils … even two sinks and two dishwashers! The inconvenience to which the carnal mind will go to keep man-made, ritualistic tradition is surprising indeed.
Inappropriate extrapolation of the ceremonial law has been rampant in Jewish culture from antiquity and continues through the present day. It is not such a stretch to think that Peter was also caught up into this type of thinking as God presented the animals to him in such an unusual configuration, and under such unusual circumstances.
The Essence of Valid Interpretation
All of the detail in this context is relevant; none of it may be ignored in any reasonable interpretation of the text. Any take on the matter that does not fully integrate God’s heart with the detail of the context is of necessity missing the point. All of the significant detail should all be integrated into God’s express intent: exposing to Peter the inconsistency of Oral Torah in the basic constructs used to derive the ungodly laws separating Jews and Gentiles, and therefore the inconsistency and inappropriateness of his respect for these laws in light of God’s command to take the Gospel to the nations.
Achieving this renewal in Peter was only the first step; God’s ultimate purpose was to move the entire Jewish community, to break the stranglehold of Jewish tradition that was keeping the Gospel in chains. As soon as Peter was free, and as this became common knowledge, it was inevitable that he would be confronted by his Jewish brothers in the matter.
Apostolic Confrontation and Conclusion
It certainly was shortly afterwards that Peter found himself at odds with most all of his Jewish brothers, who confronted him for engaging with Gentiles. “And the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him, saying, ‘Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them.'” (Acts 11:1-3) The entire Jewish community, including the Apostles, was firm in its understanding that Jews were to avoid friendships and associations with non-Jews, and the more vocal Pharisees called Peter to account for his actions. As Peter did so, explaining how Cornelius was obviously converted by faith in Messiah, just like they all had been, and filled with the Spirit of God, the brothers were at first speechless. “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, ‘Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.'” (vs 18, a key text to ponder) It quickly became clear to them all that their respect for Oral Torah and Jewish tradition was very much misplaced here, and that conversion to Judaism was not necessary for salvation. This meant that the artificial man-made laws dividing Jew and Gentile were abolished (Ep 2:14-15), and that the kingdom of God was to include God’s elect from all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike, side by side. This was a critical step for the early Church as well as a radical one, and through it God opened the gates of salvation to the world.
A More Reasonable Interpretation
It may be easily understood in this context that Peter was reacting to God’s command to eat under the mistaken impression that certain of the clean animals in the sheet were ceremonially defiled, based on his understanding and extrapolation of Jewish traditions and Oral Torah. Peter’s concern lay in the vigorous contact he observed between the clean animals and the other intrinsically unclean animals in the sheet. In response, God corrected Peter by repeatedly telling him that the intrinsically clean animals were not defiled by touching the other animals and that Peter was to stop saying that these clean animals were defiled, unfit to eat. God was telling Peter that his understanding and behavior, drawn from sentiments evident in both Jewish tradition and Oral Torah, were incorrect and unhealthy.
Getting this message through to Peter was critical because, at the time of the vision most all of the early Jewish Christians felt as Peter did, that they should not interact with Gentiles, and therefore they preached only to Jews. (Ac 11:19) This came from a hesitation to violate Oral Torah, Jewish tradition, and was hindering the Great Commission to take the Gospel to all nations.
Peter’s meditation on God’s actions in the vision, as well as his own actions in it, evidently resulted in his growing awareness that the Church’s reverence for Oral Torah and Jewish tradition was leading her to violate a clear command of God: “God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (Ac 10:28) Peter was finally beginning to understand that he was not bound by Oral Torah, and that he should not observe it when it contradicted the spirit of Torah or any of Jesus’ direct commands. God was supernaturally intervening in Peter’s life to help him and the early Jewish disciples make a major course correction: to break their hesitation to interact with Gentiles by challenging their reverence for Oral Torah, because it violated something God had already clearly told them to do (take the Gospel to the nations). This was a huge step for any observant Jew of that time period.
As the men sent from Cornelius approached, Peter’s reluctance to be near them, fearing that they were intrinsically unclean because they were non-Jewish, and that this uncleanness would be transferred to him by his association with them, must have constantly brought to mind the vision, the mix of clean and unclean animals stumbling over each other, and of God’s repeated statement: “What God has cleansed, that call not thou common.” (vs 15) As God cleansed the hearts of Cornelius and his friends through faith in Messiah, giving them the Holy Spirit even though they had not converted to Judaism, Peter understood that he was to receive them as family, just like he would any Jew.
This was a very difficult concept for any Jew to grasp at the time, and it would take many years and much study to help them all to see it clearly. Paul would do most of the work, but this first step with Peter, as a pillar of the early Church, was indeed a significant one.
Such was Peter’s understanding of the vision — not that God had changed His Laws, but that He wanted His people to stop violating the Spirit of His Law based on man-made tradition. This message was extended and repeated many times over, beginning with Christ himself and continuing through Peter and Paul as the early Church grew. Contending with legalism and the constant insistence that Gentiles must convert to Judaism in order to be saved was a deep struggle for decades. (Ac 15:1, , Gal 2:13) However, at no time during this crisis was there ever any hint that God’s Laws were no longer binding, or that they were not universal – applicable to Gentiles as well as Jews. The only laws which God renounced were man-made, found only in Jewish tradition: Oral Torah.
The meaning of Peter’s vision on the rooftop is consistently used to teach believers that the dietary laws found in the Old Testament are no longer binding for Christians. However, it is clear from a careful analysis of the whole context that such an interpretation has many apparently insurmountable difficulties. It requires making an assumption that all of the animals in the sheet were forbidden in the dietary laws. However, one need not presume this: it is quite possible that there were clean animals present which were lawful for Peter to eat. This may be reasonably inferred from details present in the context, providing for a much more reasonable approach that fits more consistently and intelligently with the overall historical and biblical narrative. It permits one to retain the authority of dietary law, consistent with Christ’s claim that He has not abolished any part of Torah, while provide a clear relationship between the details of the vision and the ultimate affect that it had on Peter and the Apostles. At the very least, the text is found to lack any conclusive support for the abolishing of any of God’s Laws, and it should therefore not be exploited for this end.