Peter’s Vision: To Eat, or Not to Eat the Animals? By Scott Nelson
One of the first “proof texts” to be cited when the subject of dietary law comes up is the vision given to Peter as recorded in Acts chapter 10. 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. Here is that passage:
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. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance 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. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” 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 and reads like this:
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. About the ninth hour in the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!” 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. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.” 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. 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. In the first sentence: The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter…. “They”, are the men that Cornelius sent, and “the city” is Joppa where Peter is staying. After Peter has the vision of the sheet with the various creatures and is told not to call common what God has cleansed, comes the rest of the story.
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. And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there. While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are seeking you. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.” 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 NKJV
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.
As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him, But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I myself am also a man.” And as he talked with him, he went in and found many who had come together. 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 NKJV
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, even after walking with Yeshua during his entire ministry, that “unclean” animals continued to be unclean and unlawful to eat. He knew that it was not possible 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 to eat any kind of meat!
There are those who would have us believe 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. But in Peter’s vision, at most, only the animals on the sheet would have been clean. 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 might have been clean (they weren’t real in the first place), this does not imply that animals off the sheet were clean as well. Only those animals that were on the sheet had been cleansed. Conversely, the picture God wanted to paint in Peter’s mind is that he shouldn’t assume all Gentiles are unclean either, 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 understood that the vision was about how God views humans. It had nothing to do with how He views meat. But Peter’s interpretation appears to be broader than God intended it to be in that he said… “But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” This is too broad because not all men have been cleansed and stand clean before God. This will be proven from the book of Revelation in a moment. I don’t believe Peter was insisting that all men had been cleansed. The Greek words in the sentence can mean; assert or maintain by assuming. I believe Peter was saying that he was told not to assume that a man is unclean simply because he is a Gentile because some had been cleansed. This is further established by the statement Peter made when he was at Cornelius’ home.
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
The clear implication is that those who do not fear God and continue to work unrighteousness are unclean and not accepted by Him. There are many things, including some humans, that are not accepted or seen as clean by God. In the book of Revelation 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.”
Revelation 2:14 NKJV
“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.
Revelation 2:20 NKJV
“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.”
Revelation 3:4 NKJV
A word about teaching metaphors.
There are a number of other instances in the Bible of dreams and visions being given to men for the purpose of informing and/or teaching. I can think of none that were intended to be taken at face value but instead required interpreting to find the true meaning. There are some things that God told certain prophets to do as a sign and teaching metaphor that would cause serious problems if we were to interpret them the way many Bible teachers want to interpret 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 God’s command to send our sons to a whorehouse to find a wife? Of course not. Likewise, we cannot use Peter’s vision to justify eating what God has not cleansed and continues to consider unclean.