Peter and Cornelius
Peter’s Vision (Acts 10:9-16)
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Jewish dietary laws as revealed by Scripture in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Knowledge of and strict adherence to these laws was an absolutely central component of the Jewish identity in the first-century A.D.; as it continues to be for many Jews in the 21st century.
The spiritual/emotional power of these dietary and other laws was bound up within the concept of “cleanness.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible provides an explanation that may help us to appreciate the depth and power of this concept to a practicing Jew.
Old Testament laws of clean and unclean are applied to persons, foods, places, and objects. Human beings become unclean principally by contact with the dead or with discharge of one of the body fluids, by the eating of tabooed foods, and by the disease of leprosy. …
Hebrew priestly tradition regarded the laws of cleanness as a part of the Mosaic covenant, and essential to the survival of the nation, since violation of them was offensive to the holiness of God and estranged him from his people.
This discussion is a prelude to understanding how Peter, a practicing Jew and thus one who identified himself with the God of Israel, reacted when faced with the full implications of Christ’s words from Mark 7:18b,19: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)”.
Prior to reengagement with the text, we must note that it is God who is taking the initiative at both sides of the Jew/Gentile divide. So, the the promise made two-thousand years earlier to Abraham (Genesis 22:18) was now, by God’s faithfulness, being made visible in this fallen world.
9 The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
The sheet contained all of the unclean animals that Peter had for his entire life avoided. Here God is dealing with the central issue that would keep Jews and Gentiles in their separate worlds — the inability to come together in fellowship at a meal.
14 But Peter said, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
Peter’s revulsion and resistance is completely to be expected. For, it is one thing to hear his Lord make the seemingly abstract statement that no food is unclean and quite another to put it into practice after a lifetime of carefully practicing the opposite! But, God is here unmistakably decreeing that it is Peter’s Jewish heritage that must give way so that His promise to all nations may become a reality in the Christian Church.