To eat, or not to eat... (Part 1)
One of the first "proof texts" to be cited when the subject of dietary laws pops up is the vision given to Peter as recorded in the book of Acts. According to many, this vision was given to Peter to inform the world that all meat has been cleansed and is now lawful to eat. When one finally sees the truth of the matter, it is a wonder how the vision continues to be seen in this way. The passage that is quoted is as follows...
9 The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance 11 and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of he earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." 14 But Peter said, "Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean." 15 And a voice spoke to him again the second time, "What God has cleansed you must not call common." 16 This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again. Acts 10:9-16 NKJV
Invariably, those who insist this passage is proof that God has cleansed all meat, quote no more than what is quoted above. Now if this passage is all there is to the story, one could easily come to the conclusion that God has indeed cleansed all meat for consumption. But this isn't even half the story. The story starts at the beginning of chapter 10. It reads like this;
1 There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, 2 a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. 3 About the ninth hour in the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius!" 4 And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, "What is it, lord?" So he said to him, "Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. 6 He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do." 7 And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. 8 So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa. Acts 10:1-8 NKJV
The story continues from this point with the first passage I quoted above. The next sentence in the story is verse 9 and begins... "The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter...". "They", in this sentence are the men that Cornelius sent, and "the city" is Joppa where Peter is staying as mentioned in the quote immediately preceding this paragraph. After Peter has the vision of the sheet with the various types of creatures, and is told not to call common what God has cleansed, comes the rest of the story.
17 Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon's house, and stood before the gate. 18 And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there. 19 While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are seeking you. 20 Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them." 21 Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, "Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?".... Acts 10:17-21
The men then told Peter about Cornelius, his vision, and why they had come. So the next day Peter went with them to see Cornelius.
25 As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him, 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, "Stand up; I myself am also a man." 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many who had come together. 28 Then he said to them, "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. ... Acts 10:25-28
Later, in chapter 11, the believing Jews (observant Messianics!) confront Peter about going to stay with and eat with a Gentile. Peter recounts the whole story of his vision. He tells them of how he was told... "What God has cleansed you must not call common." From this statement comes Peter's interpretation and subsequent justification for going to Cornelius because he believes he was told that he should not consider Cornelius common or unclean. My point being that Peter's interpretation of the vision is repeated and explained for the second time.
Peter was not an idiot. When he was told to kill and eat unclean animals, twice it says he wondered what the meaning of the vision was! If the meaning of the vision were as simple and straight forward as those who think it was about food want us to believe, why then would Peter be puzzled and left wondering what it meant? Peter knew, after spending over three years with Yeshua, that unclean animals continued to be unclean and unlawful to eat. And he knew that it was highly unlikely that God would order him to defile himself by eating unclean meat. He knew the vision was a teaching metaphor that needed interpreting. There had to be a parallel meaning to it. This is what he was looking for when it says he, "wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant." The next day Peter gives the interpretation and says... "But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean." Nowhere, anywhere in the Bible is there any indication that Peter, or anyone else ever interpreted this vision literally and saw it as God's green light on eating any kind of meat!
There are those who would have us believe that the vision had a double meaning, arguing that it is obvious from the implications of the vision that the animals on the sheet were in fact clean. They would have us believe that God said... Everything has been cleansed, so don't call anything unclean. Of course the animals on the sheet would have been clean. But this was a teaching metaphor. The voice Peter heard said, "What God has cleansed you must not call common". Just because the animals on the sheet were clean, it does not imply that animals off the sheet were clean as well. Only those on the sheet had been cleansed. Conversely, the picture God wanted to paint in Peter's mind is that he should not assume all Gentiles are unclean because all of them are not. Some, have been cleansed. Cornelius and his household were the subject matter of "What God has cleansed...". Cornelius and his household stood clean before God.
Peter's interpretation that the vision was concerning how God views humans as opposed to how He views meat is correct. But Peter's understanding of what God is saying about humans appears at first to be broader than God intended it to be based on his statement... "But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean." Not all men have been cleansed and stand clean before God as I will prove from the book of Revelation in a moment. But first, it should be noted that the Greek word translated "call" in Peter's statement is not the same word translated "call" that was used by the voice in the vision. In the vision, the Greek word "call" means to "make" unclean, in this case by labeling or calling something unclean. The Greek word Peter used is more broad and can mean to assert, or maintain by assuming. Peter was not insisting that all men have now been cleansed, but was saying that he was told not to assume that a man is unclean simply because he is a Gentile. Some, had been cleansed. This picture is further established by the statement Peter made when he was at Cornelius' house.
Then Peter opened his mouth and said: "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him." Acts 10:34,35 NKJV
Implication; those who do not fear Him and work unrighteousness are not accepted (considered clean). There are plenty of things, including humans, that are not accepted or seen as clean by God. In the book of Revelation, written long after Yeshua's sacrifice, Yeshua speaks to seven churches and says things like:
"But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality." Rev. 2:14
"Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and beguile my servants to commit sexual immorality and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Rev. 2:20
"You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy." Rev. 3:4
A word about teaching metaphors.
There are many instances in the Bible of dreams and visions being given to men for the purpose of informing and/or teaching. Off hand, I can think of none that were intended to be taken at face value but instead required interpreting to find the hidden parallel meaning. Some of the things God told various prophets to do as a sign and teaching metaphor would cause some problem if we were to use them the way many Bible teachers would have us use Peter's vision. For example: God told Isaiah to go naked for a while in Isaiah 20. Should we see this as God's green light on nudist colonies? God told the prophet Hosea to marry a harlot. Should we see this as legitimizing sending our sons to a whorehouse to find a wife? Likewise, we can not use Peter's vision to justify eating what God has not cleansed and continues to consider unclean.