From Jerusalem, the first Christians carried the good news of the resurrection of Jesus and the arrival of the kingdom of God throughout the Greco-Roman world. They were guided and empowered on their journeys by the Holy Spirit, the promised Comforter whom God had sent on the day of Pentecost, seven weeks after the resurrection (Ac 1-2).
The Spirit led the Jewish disciples of Jesus into situations they probably never anticipated.
One of these is recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts, which describes the addition of the first Gentiles (non-Jews) to the body of believers.
To prepare Peter to visit the Gentile God-fearer Cornelius, a Roman centurion stationed at Caesarea, God gave the apostle a unique vision (Acts 10:9-16). In that vision, Peter "saw the heavens opened" (v. 11), an indication that divine revelation would follow. A sheet covered with all kinds of creatures descended from heaven, accompanied by a voice that said, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." (v. 13)
Peter protested, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean" (v. 14). Peter's words imply there were two kinds of animals on the sheet. Some were animals classified in the Torah as unclean (Lev 11, Dt 14). Others, the ones he called "common," were clean but of doubtful provenance.
Apparently, Peter's practice was to avoid clean meat that might be connected with paganism or idolatry. For example, meat that might have been involved in a sacrifice to a false god. He did not want to eat the meat from the clean animals on the sheet because they were there together with lots of unclean animals.(1)
The voice then assured Peter that he should not avoid meat from the clean animals on the sheet. "What God has made clean," it said, "do not call common" (v. 15). But, here is an important observation, the voice did not instruct Peter to eat the unclean animals on the sheet.
Three men sent by Cornelius arrived after the vision was repeated three times. The Spirit directed Peter to accompany them back to Caesarea. Peter had plenty of time to contemplate what he saw and heard in the vision on the journey. The meaning became clear to him: "...God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean" (v. 28). Peter understood that God's new covenant people would include both Jews and Gentiles!
We may wonder why God chose such a seemingly indirect way to communicate his plans to Peter.
Why convey a message about people with a vision about animals and eating? Part of the answer to this question is that the vision was not so indirect for Peter. In the Bible and Jewish literature of the Second Temple period, animals were often used to represent people and nations.(2)
The custom of picturing people and tribes with animals begins in the book of Genesis, where Ishmael is called "a wild donkey of a man" (Ge 16:12). Judah is compared to "a lion's cub," Issachar to "a strong donkey," Naphtali to "a doe," and Daniel to "a serpent" (Ge 49). The prophets continue this practice. Jeremiah, at one point, portrays Israel's enemies as a lion, a wolf, and a leopard (Jer 5:6). In Isaiah, passages about animals peacefully coexisting picture nations dwelling together in peace (Isa 11:6-9; 65:25).
The use of animals to symbolize nations becomes especially prominent in apocalyptic literature, beginning with the visions of Daniel 7-8 where beasts represent empires. The intertestamental book of 1 Enoch includes a vision summarizing the history of the world. In this vision, Israelites are sheep, while people from neighboring nations are various unclean animals (chapters 85-90).
In the context of the Bible and Jewish apocalyptic literature, a vision in which animals stand for people seems perfectly natural, and it is not surprising that Peter made the connection. In the command to "rise, kill, and eat," he may have been reminded of Dan 7:5, where a beast like a bear was told, "Arise, devour much flesh." In Dan 7:5, an empire was told to incorporate additional nations, and in Peter's vision, the church was directed to incorporate new people.
Another reason for Peter's vision to involve food is that issues of food and table fellowship would need to be addressed as Gentiles were added to the body of believers.
For Jews, the dietary restrictions of the Torah were a way to remain holy, distinct, and separate from the nations (Lev 20:25-26). Some, like Peter, observed additional restrictions to guard against pollution from paganism. These might include avoiding any meat from a Gentile source.
However, for the ekklesia (church of Messiah Jesus) to become a united body, Jewish believers like Peter would need to learn to trust and accept Gentiles like Cornelius as full-fledged members, as brothers rather than pagans. They were not to call "common" those whom God had cleansed.
On the other hand, many interpreters have claimed that Peter's vision did not abolish the distinction between clean and unclean meats. Jewish believers in the first-century church continued to live a Jewish lifestyle, and Gentile believers needed to observe some dietary restrictions out of respect for their Jewish brethren (Ac 15:20, 29).
By following Jesus' example of humility (Phil 2:1-11)—applied powerfully to food and fellowship by Paul in Romans 14—Jewish and Gentile believers could grow together in love and unity. As foretold by our King in John 13:34-35, that reality would be an indisputable witness to the truth of his kingship on earth. And a means of drawing all people to himself.
(1) On the meaning of "common," see Clinton Wahlen, "Peter's Vision and Conflicting Definitions of Purity," New Testament Studies 51 (2005), pp. 505-518.
(2) On this point, see Jason Staples," 'Rise, Kill, and Eat': Animals as Nations in Early Jewish Visionary Literature and Acts 10," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42 (2019), pp. 3-17.
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