By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
“I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse,” you say.
“That’s great,” says the waiter, “Horse happens to be our special for the day.”
No offense to our horse-eating readers, but horse on the menu wouldn’t be very appealing to me. But can you imagine how disappointed you’d be if the waiter rattled off a list of other options including grits and possum gravy, sow belly, southern-fried muskrat, and goat tripe. (By the way those are real options from The Beverly Hillbillies).
Personally, I might choose some of those options over broccoli. Surely, southern-fried muskrat can’t be too bad, can it? But I digress. Our aversion to the above menu is similar to what the apostle Peter would have felt in Acts 10 when a giant sheet of animals descended before him, and the Lord said, “take and eat!”
“You’re having horse meat today, Peter!”
If you just open your Bible up to Acts 10, this will be a rather confusing section. Why is God so concerned with Peter eating these animals? What does this have anything to do with the good news of Jesus and the spread of the gospel? In some ways, everything.
What Is the Context of Peter’s Vision?
To fully grasp the significance of Peter's vision, we must first understand the context in which it occurred. In the early days of the Christian church, a significant tension existed between Jewish and Gentile believers. The Jewish tradition had strict dietary laws, and mixing with Gentiles was generally discouraged. This cultural and religious divide was deeply ingrained, making it challenging for the gospel to reach beyond Jewish communities.
We have to understand that this isn’t just a matter of preference. It’s not as simple as saying, “oh, our family doesn’t really like to eat horse meat.” It’s more central to their identity. And it is connected to their relationship with God. It’s a boundary marker — something which informs who they are at the core of their being.
At the beginning of Acts 10, we are introduced to a man named Cornelius. He’s a devout Gentile centurion (read horse-eater) who sought God’s guidance. He cried out to God for more understanding. And God answers Cornelius by setting up a divine encounter with the apostle Peter. Peter was staying at Joppa at the time — close to Cornelius — and as he was praying, he fell into a trance and had the vision referenced earlier.
To Peter this would have been a nightmare. In our mind it might seem like dreaming of eating at a grand buffet somewhere. Not to Peter. When God says, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat,” the apostle is appalled. Surely, this is some sort of test of his religious dedication. Peter replied: "Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."
The context of his vision, then, is about Gentile inclusion. But does it mean people, food, or both?
The Meaning of Peter’s Vision
Regarding this question, there is some difference of opinion. Particularly, those traditions which continue to believe the holiness code is binding will tend to interpret this verse as symbolic and only referencing people. Citing verses like Deuteronomy 14:3-21 and Leviticus 11:1-47, they challenge the idea that Peter would be commanded by God to break Torah. Their argument is that God doesn’t change, Torah is forever binding, and what is being challenged for Peter is not his diet but his view of a Gentile person. In this view, God is only using symbolism to make a point — take the gospel to Gentiles.
Others, taking Jesus’ words in Mark 7:19, believe that not only is Peter called to take the gospel to Gentiles, he is also being reminded/taught that the holiness code is no longer in effect. This is the view of Albert Mohler, who says:
“As the Book of Acts makes clear, Christians are not obligated to follow this holiness code. This is made clear in Peter's vision in Acts 10:15. Peter is told, 'What God has made clean, do not call common.' In other words, there is no kosher code for Christians. Christians are not concerned with eating kosher foods and avoiding all others. That part of the law is no longer binding, and Christians can enjoy shrimp and pork with no injury to conscience.”
Some will quibble with Mohler’s words on the grounds that if Mark 7:19 does indicate that the disciples no longer have to worry about their diet, then why is Peter saying that he still hasn’t eaten unclean food? Why isn’t this obvious to him if Jesus already taught this?
The problem, though, is that Mark 7:19 is likely inserted as an editorial gloss. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t original. It means that Mark — several years after Jesus said this — finally understood Jesus’ meaning. This isn’t that strange. The disciples clearly didn’t understand much of what Jesus taught about His death and resurrection until it happened. The Scriptures show them each progressively understanding more and more as the Spirit reveals truth to them. Why, then, could we not say something similar about their understanding of dietary laws? I tend to come to the same conclusion as David Peterson:
“What was implicit in the teaching of Jesus is now made explicit. The clean and unclean provisions of the law were temporary, designed to keep Israel a holy and distinct people, until the time when Jews and Gentiles could receive the forgiveness of sins and sanctification on the same basis, through faith in Christ.”
Yet, regardless of where you land on the food question the overall point is clear — Peter needs to go to Cornelius’ house and share the gospel with him. And when Cornelius comes to Christ, then he comes into full fellowship with the other brothers and sisters. The barrier between Jew and Gentile is obliterated.
While I believe one might be able to make a salvation-historical application about dietary laws, there are other points of important application, even if you don’t go that route.
How Do We Apply This to Our Lives Today?
Sadly, words like “inclusion” get a bad rap today. For some they are trigger words which immediately warn of a watered-down Christianity. Yet, a radical inclusion is at the heart of the gospel. God includes sinners of all stripes into His kingdom. That is what Peter had to learn. Jesus wasn’t just for Jews (or Gentiles that decided to also become Jews). He is for humanity. Thus, Peter’s vision offers some profound implications for Christians today.
Just as Peter's vision broke down the barrier between Jew and Gentile, we are called to break down barriers of prejudice, racism, and exclusion in our world. God's love knows no boundaries, and we should actively seek to bridge divides and extend His grace to all. Yes, it’s predicated upon the gospel and union with Christ. And this union with Christ will continue to lead us into obedience to all that He commands. Inclusion doesn’t negate transformation.
It also serves as a reminder for us to be welcoming to the stranger. The vision reminds us to welcome those who may be different from us with open hearts. In our diverse societies, we encounter people of various cultures, faiths, and backgrounds. God's love calls us to embrace them, treating them with dignity and respect. We should be careful not to default to calling something “unclean” which God calls “clean.”
What happened here in Acts 10 opened up the door for worldwide mission. Any of the barriers which stood in the way of the gospel going to the ends of the earth have been shattered. Peter’s vision challenges us to engage in cross-cultural ministry. We are called to share the gospel across cultural and linguistic boundaries, recognizing that God's love transcends all human distinctions.
Peter's vision in Acts 10 marked a pivotal moment in the early Christian church. It shattered preconceived notions, revealing the boundless love and grace of God. It called for a church that would embrace people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. God breaks down barriers between people and between Himself. This is the good news of the gospel.
David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 330.
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