Peter’s Vision: Food, Gentiles, or Both?

In discussions with my Torah-observant1 friends, the conversation often turns to the dietary laws prescribed in the Law of Moses. In a recent chat, the passage from Acts 10:9-16 was in view, which is where the apostle Peter experienced a vision:

He saw heaven opened and an object that resembled a large sheet coming down, being lowered by its four corners to the earth. In it were all the four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth, and the birds of the sky. A voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” “No, Lord!” Peter said. “For I have never eaten anything impure and ritually unclean.” Again, a second time, the voice said to him, “What God has made clean, do not call impure.” This happened three times, and suddenly the object was taken up into heaven.

Acts 10:11-16 (CSB)

My friend suggested that Peter’s vision only taught that the previously forbidden Goyim (Gentiles) were allowed into God’s family. It did not also teach that the dietary restrictions given in the Law of Moses had been lifted. To make his point, my friend compared Peter’s vision with several metaphors used by Yeshua (Jesus):

Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again. But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again. In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up in him for eternal life.”

John 4:13-14

Here Yeshua was not referring to literal water, of course, but using water as a metaphor for eternal life. He used a similar metaphor later in the same chapter:

In the meantime, the disciples kept urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.” The disciples said to one another, “Could someone have brought him something to eat?” “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work,” Jesus told them.

John 4:31-34

Like the water in the previous passage, the food Yeshua referred to here is not meant literally. He explained as much, teaching that in the same way food is sustenance for the body, obeying the will of God the Father is sustenance for Yeshua. It’s a poetic metaphor to explain an idea.

So let’s return to Peter’s vision in Acts 10. Is the allowing of previously unclean animals into Peter’s belly solely a metaphor2 for the allowing of previously unclean people (Goyim) into God’s family? Peter’s vision is referenced several times after it occurred, but nothing is mentioned about food. The subsequent comments are all related to the Goyim. This would seem to support the notion that the vision was not teaching about a change in food laws. Because of the vision, Peter visits a Gentile believer in God named Cornelius and tells him, “You know it’s forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit a foreigner, but God has shown me that I must not call any person impure or unclean . . . Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation, the person who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:28, 34-35). Then the Holy Spirit came down on Cornelius and his household and they become the first Gentile converts to Christianity recorded in Scripture. Later, in Acts 11, Peter meets up with “the apostles and brothers and sisters” and recounts the whole story of the vision and his visit with Cornelius. “When they heard this, they became silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘So then, God has given repentance resulting in life even to the Gentiles’” (Acts 11:18)

The vision is clearly a metaphorical device that teaches that the formerly prohibited Goyim are now allowed into God’s family. But does this vision also teach that the dietary restrictions of the Torah were lifted? In other words, can it be taken both as an allegory for the Goyim and a teaching about a change in the food laws? My friend says no. However, if we take this vision solely as an allegory about the Goyim, we run into a problem. It would mean that the command given in the vision (“kill and eat” v. 13) and the subsequent declaration (“what God has made clean, you must not call impure” v. 14) are both based on a false analogy. Through the vision, God would then be teaching that certain people who used to be impure are now clean by falsely declaring that certain food that used to be impure is now clean. To my knowledge, there is no precedent in scripture for God doing such a thing.

In Yeshua’s metaphors of food and water, He used true concepts in the physical, literal world (quenching one’s thirst, eating food for sustenance) to teach spiritual truths. Suppose Peter’s vision did not teach the lifting of the Mosaic dietary restrictions. In that case, God was using a false concept in the physical, literal world (certain impure food has not really been made clean) to teach a spiritual truth about the Goyim. Are we to understand Peter’s vision to teach that unclean people are now clean, but unclean food remains unclean? Surely not. The meaning of the metaphor is that in the same way certain food that was once impure has been made clean, certain people who were once impure have also been made clean.

The particular application had to do with nullifying Jewish dietary laws for Christians in accord with Jesus’ remarks on the subject in Mk 7:17-23. But Peter was soon to learn that the range of the vision’s message extended much more widely, touching directly on Jewish-Gentile relations as he had known them and on those relations in ways he could never have anticipated. Three times this interchange took place, and three times the message was indelibly impressed on Peter’s subconscious.

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Abridged Edition): Acts 10:15-16

Interestingly, this tells us that like the forbidden food, the Goyim were not unclean in and of themselves. Rather, declaring certain food and certain people impure was part of God’s way of setting Israel apart as a nation. In fact, the Torah’s language confirms that the food prohibitions were based on separation, not inherent impurity. For example, it teaches that if we touch dead animals’ bodies, we will become unclean until evening (Lev 11:31, 17:15). Are we to believe God thought parasites and bacteria went away when the sun went down? Of course not! The dietary restrictions were not given for reasons of inherent impurity, but rather to keep Israel aware of their need for holiness and set them apart as a nation. And here in Acts 10, we find that the food laws given under the Sinai Covenant no longer apply under the New Covenant. 

Peter’s resistance shows the difficulty with which the Jews let go of the Law. God’s commandment here is first a declaration that the Old Covenant dietary laws are fulfilled and thus no longer in effect (see Mk 7:19). More importantly, this vision revealed that the Gentiles, who were considered unclean by the Jews, are cleansed by the blood of Christ and are equal partakers of the Kingdom (see v. 28). This vision thus prepared Peter to receive Cornelius (vv. 17–48). Finally, this also teaches us that God desires to receive everyone into His Church, regardless of heritage, social class, or past sins, for all are one in Christ.

Orthodox Study Bible: Acts 10:14-15

Additionally, in telling the story of Peter’s vision and Cornelius’ subsequent salvation, the author (Luke) alludes to the system of sacrifices and offerings prescribed in the Torah, which was still going strong at the time this letter was written. The first-century Jewish audience to whom this letter was written would not have missed this link. First, an Angel came to Cornelius and told him that his prayers and gifts to the poor came up as a “memorial offering” before God (Acts 10:4). Then the phrase “kill and eat” is used by the voice in Peter’s vision (v 13), which harkens back to the sacrificial offerings as described in Deuteronomy 12. A link to the sacrificial system may even be seen in how Cornelius’ offering (prayers and gifts) was ultimately consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit (v 44), like the burnt offerings described in the Torah. Surely, these allusions in the text to the sacrificial system are not a coincidence. Nor is God’s use of a vision. Rather than directly telling Peter that the Gentiles are now to be accepted, God chose instead to use a symbolic vision in which He declared that formerly unclean meat was now clean. This vision, including it’s allusion to the sacrificial system of the Torah, establishes a strong and direct link between declaring the Gentiles clean and declaring meat clean. (It’s the whole point of the allegory.) Which makes it even more unlikely that God only intended to teach that the one was made clean (Gentiles) but not the other (meat).

We should also note that Peter’s vision is not an isolated incident. If it were the only passage in the New Testament to declare that certain food is now clean, it might be challenging to sustain such a teaching. But when taken in concert with all the other scriptural support for the end of the Mosaic dietary restrictions, the vision’s dual meaning becomes apparent. The New Testament says we should not let anyone judge us regarding food and drink (Col 2:16). It teaches that God’s kingdom is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17). Paul, who is persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself (Rom 14:14), teaches that food will not bring us close to God. He says, “We are not worse off if we don’t eat, and we are not better if we do eat” (1 Cor 8:8). Yeshua Himself explicitly taught that all food is clean in Mark 7:17-23. Under the New Covenant, it’s not the food that goes into our bodies that is unclean but rather the things that come out of our hears such as willful disobedience, an unthankful disposition, and uncontrolled desires.3 And we can’t ignore the decision rendered by the apostles and elders (and confirmed by the Holy Spirit) at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1-29. It was decided that the Sinai dietary laws were not to be enforced on new believers.

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, since it is sanctified by the word of God and by prayer.

—1 Timothy 4:4-5

That said, it’s essential we remember that just because we have the freedom in Yeshua to eat all food, it does not mean that we should eat all food. The New Testament teaches that we should be prepared to forego any food or tradition that might cause a brother to stumble or lead to discord in the body of Christ (Rom 14:19-21; 1 Cor 8:13; 10:25-30). The apostle Paul wrote, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love (Gal 5:13).

The New Testament teaches that all food is clean, and that teaching does not stand or fall on our interpretation of Peter’s vision. Yet understanding his vision to refer to the now-clean status of previously impure people and food is the most consistent interpretation within the larger context of Scripture. The law given by God to Israel under the Mosaic Covenant was not intended to last forever. It was valid and binding for a specific people and a specific time. That time expired with the advent of the New Covenant ushered in at Yeshua’s sacrifice and resurrection.

The coming of the new covenant age of salvation means both the full inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God and the fulfillment of OT laws of ritual purity (Mark 7:19Col 2:16–17). The vision here previews both these things and opens the way for table-fellowship between Jews and Gentiles.

NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible: Acts 10:15

Footnotes

[1] This refers to keeping the 613 mitzvot (commandments) known as the Law of Moses, which are found in the Torah. It has been impossible to live a truly Torah-observant life ever since the second Temple was destroyed in AD 70. (And it has not been required by God since the resurrection of Yeshua.)

[2] Peter’s vision is not technically a metaphor because it does not turn on a figure of speech and it does not compare two things. The vision only teaches about formerly unclean food. Rather, the vision is an allegory; a narrative that uses a seemingly unrelated story to teach a lesson. In this sense, it is a different literary device than what Yeshua used in the previous passages.

[3] Orthodox Study Bible notes on 1 Timothy 4:3-5.

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