Did God show Peter that the prohibition on eating unclean animals was repealed by giving him the vision of the sheet let down from heaven? Many of us have been taught that God used Peter’s dream in Acts 10 to authoritatively declare all animals clean and fit for consumption. This interpretation, however, has some flaws. The Bible does not say that at all. Neither does Peter. In fact, when we dig a little deeper, we discover that Peter interpreted the vision of the sheet quite differently. Our traditional “now all foods are clean” interpretation needs to be reexamined before we discover the real meaning of the vision. Let’s take a closer look.
Misinterpreting the Vision
Simon Peter was staying at the house of Simon the Tanner in Joppa. Peter was up on the roof praying, probably to escape the nasty smell of the tanner’s house. As a fisherman, Peter was accustomed to smelly occupations, but the ancient tanning trade was the worst of all. He was praying on the roof, and as he prayed, he fell into a vision.
In his vision, he saw a sheet let down from heaven containing both clean and unclean animals. He heard a voice say, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” (Acts 10:13) The vision of the sheet from heaven is usually interpreted to mean that the dietary laws in the Torah have been revoked. But this interpretation is not supported by the text.
First, this interpretation contradicts earlier Scripture. If we accept the traditional interpretation (that God intended for His people to disregard the laws of clean and unclean), then we must concede that God has changed His mind and repealed His eternal and unchanging Torah. We are left with Holy Scripture that hopelessly contradicts itself. The result of such thinking is that no Scripture is certain, and no mandate of God is definite.
A second problem with the “all foods clean” interpretation of Peter’s vision is that it is only a vision. The conventional understanding seems to assume that Peter proceeded to kill and eat the animals in the sheet, enjoying a sumptuous feast of wild beasts, cats and lizards. In fact, Peter does not “kill and eat,” but responds correctly and lawfully, “By no means, Lord!” After this happens two more times, the sheet is withdrawn.
In addition, the “all foods clean” interpretation ignores the literary antecedent of Ezekiel 4:11-15 where the prophet Ezekiel is called upon to eat bread made unclean from contact with human excrement. Like Peter, Ezekiel protests:
“Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I have never been defiled; for from my youth until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has any unclean meat ever entered my mouth” (Ezekiel 4:14).
Just as God relents and allows Ezekiel to instead use cow manure for fuel, God relents in Peter’s vision, where the sheet is withdrawn.
Furthermore, the “all foods clean” interpretation is not part of the story. Though there is discussion of eating with Gentiles, there is no mention of eating unclean animals before or after the vision. Neither is that interpretation born out by the remainder of Acts, which continues to paint the believers as a Torah-observant sect of Judaism.
Finally, and most importantly, the “all foods clean” interpretation contradicts Peter’s own interpretation of the vision later in chapter 10 and again in chapter 11.
Despite these objections, Acts 10 is often taught as the Bible passage that made the meat laws obsolete. A careful reading, however, reveals that this passage does not sugest a change to the Torah’s dietary prohibitions.
The Real Meaning of the Vision
The Bible does not leave us guessing about the real meaning of the vision. In Acts 10:28-29 Peter himself explains the meaning. Then in Acts 11:1-18 he explains it again to his colleagues in Jerusalem. Therefore our attempts to reinterpret the vision as a repealing of the biblical dietary laws is not only unwarranted, it is unbiblical.
Peter explains the vision as thus: “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28, emphasis mine). That is, one should not designate one group of human beings as ritually pure and another as ritually impure. The vision is not literally talking about eating or cannibalism. Instead, the clean and unclean animals were understood metaphorically to represent human beings.
Uncleanness and Gentiles
One of the stringencies of first-century Judaism was a prohibition on entering the homes of Gentiles and eating with Gentiles. Though we have little information on the exact nature of the prohibition, it is largely inferred from John 18:28, Acts 10:28 and Galatians 2:11-15. It seems to also be reflected in the Mishnah where we read, “The dwelling places of Gentiles are unclean” (m.Oholot 18:7).
The Torah of Moses contains no such law. There is not a biblical law forbidding Jews from mingling with or eating with Gentiles. There are prohibitions about eating idol sacrifices, but God never forbade entering a Gentile home or eating with a Gentile. Those laws and traditions seem to have arisen as rabbinic fences to protect Jews from ritual contamination and cultural assimilation. According to mainstream Jewish interpretation (in first-century Israel) of the laws of clean and unclean, Gentiles were classified as unclean and to be avoided. Eating with them was discouraged; entering their homes was regarded as contaminating.
Until his vision, Peter’s understanding was that as a Jew, he was not to associate with Gentiles, enter their homes, or eat with them. This had theological ramifications. If Gentiles were not even eligible for table-fellowship with Jews, how much less were they eligible for the Kingdom of Heaven!
But Peter’s assumption was in error. Those prohibitions did not arise from the Bible, but only from the stringencies of men’s interpretations. God had never designated Gentiles unclean, nor had He declared their homes or foods defiling. Yet if invited to eat of a meal at a Gentile home, the first-century Jew would be required to decline on the basis that the food was (theoretically) rendered unclean through contact with Gentiles, even if the meat they served was in line with Leviticus 11. So too, if invited into a Gentile’s home, the first-century Jew would place himself into a state of assumed ritual impurity.
For these reasons, if not for the vision of the sheet, Peter would have refused the invitation to enter the home of Cornelius the Roman centurion. He also would have refused the notion that Gentiles could participate in the Kingdom of Heaven. The vision of the sheet is offered as corrections on both of these points.
Distinguishing between Clean and Unclean
As the sheet is let down from heaven, Peter sees that it is full of both clean and unclean animals. He is instructed to “kill and eat.” He refuse, saying, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (Acts 10:14). Peter’s response to the heavenly voice is correct. He refuses to “kill and eat” unclean animals on the basis that God has already declared the unclean animals unfit for consumption. Therefore the voice answers, “Do not call anything common that God has made clean.” Perhaps the inverse is also true: “Do not call anything clean that God has made unclean.”
Peter has correctly distinguished between clean and unclean, refusing to eat the unclean on the basis that God Himself designated categories of clean and unclean animals. How then, would Peter dare to call something common and unclean that God has declared clean, namely human beings cleansed by faith? The message is essentially, “You have rightly distinguished between clean and unclean animals on the basis of My authority; now receive the Gentiles as clean on the basis of My authority.” As Peter explains, “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28, emphasis mine). Notice that he does not say, “God has shown me that I should not call any thing unclean.” As Peter understood the vision, it was a correction of the tradition based prohibition on Jews mixing with Gentiles - not an alteration of the biblical prohibition on consuming unclean animals.
God Explains the Vision
The vision’s meaning was not immediately clear to Peter. Acts 10:17 tells us that Peter was greatly perplexed as to what the vision might be. He clearly did not understand the vision to mean that all meats had suddenly been declared fit to eat. He was still wondering about what it meant when the Gentiles sent by Cornelius arrived at the house. He could hear them calling out, “Is this the house where Simon called Peter is staying?” Suddenly the Spirit of the Lord moved and spoke to him, explaining the vision, “Behold, three men are looking for you. But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself” (Acts 10:19-20). Now the meaning of the vision was clear. He was not to regard these Gentiles as unclean. He was to have no hesitation about traveling with them, eating with them or entering their homes. In other words, God was instructing him to receive the non-Jewish believers - not pork and shellfish - as clean.
An excerpt from “HOLY COW!” by Hope Egan.