God gave Peter a memorable vision to make clear to the Church that He was calling gentiles. Did the vision have another meaning about unclean meats?
The Old Testament provides listings of animals designated as “clean” and animals designated as “unclean” and therefore unfit for human consumption. These passages, in Leviticus 11:1-47 and Deuteronomy 14:3-20, give the criteria for clean quadrupeds and marine life, as well as lists of birds designated clean and unclean. These biblical laws prohibit the consumption of pork, as well as mollusks and crustaceans, commonly called “shellfish.”
Some claim that Peter’s vision in Acts 10 abolishes this law about clean and unclean animals. Is this claim true?
The context of Acts 10
Before examining the specifics of Peter’s vision, let’s note the context surrounding it. Let’s look in the book of Acts at the development of the Church as it began to shift from a body of exclusively Jewish believers to a body that included non-Jews as well as Jews.
It seems the first instance of the calling of a non-Jew was that of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-39. This prominent man from the royal court of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, traveled some distance to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. He was likely not Jewish, but rather a God-fearing gentile, one who was permitted a limited status in the Jerusalem center of worship.
Returning home, by divine appointment he encountered Philip as he puzzled over one of the prophecies of Isaiah. Philip interpreted the prophecy for him, after which he became the first non-Jewish person whose baptism is recorded in the inspired history of the Church (though there’s no record of when he received the laying on of hands and the Holy Spirit).
This went very much against the grain for the Jews of the first century, who thought of themselves as the only nation God was working with. So, prior to the conversion of the entire household of the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10:17-48, the apostle Peter had to receive a lesson about God’s purpose in calling gentiles. The purpose of Peter’s vision is clear in this context.
In Acts 10:9-16, Peter received a vision from God in which he saw a sheet coming down out of heaven that contained “all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air” (verse 12). Note that it was a mixture, with probably some clean animals and some unclean.
A voice from God then exhorted Peter to “kill and eat” (verse 13), to which Peter objected that he had never eaten anything “common” (koinos in Greek) or “unclean” (akathartos in Greek). The first word refers to animals that had not been bled appropriately or had died of themselves. The second is the word used to refer to the unclean animals in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.
The voice then told him, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (verse 15). But what was it that God had cleansed: meats hitherto unacceptable for human consumption? Or human beings hitherto unaccepted by the Jews for fellowship?
The key to understanding this event is in verse 28, where Peter explains: “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (verse 28, emphasis added). This was unlawful according to Jewish tradition, not Scripture.
Note the next events after Peter’s vision were his encounter with the three men whom the gentile Cornelius had sent to Peter, followed by his visit with Cornelius and his household and their conversion and baptism.
In Acts 11 Peter was called into question by “those of the circumcision” (verse 2), that is, circumcised Jewish Christians, because of his table fellowship with gentiles. In his defense he rehearsed the story of the vision and the gentiles receiving God’s Spirit (verses 4-17). Notice their surprised reaction in verse 18: “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
One can almost hear the astonishment in that declaration. The unthinkable had happened: non-Jews were now being incorporated into the plan of God. But this, of course, was precisely the message of Peter’s vision, which had nothing to do with eating food, and everything to do with acceptance of people who, according to Jewish scruples, had been regarded as unclean.
For more about clean and unclean animals, see the article “Clean and Unclean Animals: Does God Care What Meats We Eat?” and the chart “Clean and Unclean Meats.”