Why Peter’s Vision is About Food
When it comes to Peter’s vision of the sheet of animals, our Hebrew Roots friends really have just one argument. And that argument, when worked out to its logical conclusion, reveals why Peter’s vision must be speaking about food, rather than Gentiles, being made clean. The vision is recorded in Acts 10.
The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.Acts 10:9–16, ESV
The interpretation taught in Torahism (aka Torah-observant Christianity, Hebrew Roots) is that, in this passage, Jesus used a vision of unclean animals as an illustration to teach Peter about the Gentiles. And because of what Peter explains to a Gentile just a few verses later, we have to agree that is the proper application of the vision. In verse 28, Peter says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”
“Torah keepers” reject the idea that in this vision, Jesus also taught that God had made all food clean. They insist the subject of eating in the vision was purely an analogy and not intended to teach anything about food. They instead see Jesus commanding Peter to engage with unclean food as a way of metaphorically addressing the real-world issue of Peter interacting with unclean Gentiles. Thus, when Jesus rebukes Peter by saying, “What God has made clean do not call common” (v. 15), He refers to Gentiles, not animals.
Those convinced that the Old Covenant dietary commands are still in effect are forced into this interpretation by their precommitments. They must reject any reading in which the subject of the vision (eating unclean animals) is understood as part of its meaning. However, this artificially constrained interpretation is highly problematic for two reasons.
First, if the Old Covenant dietary restrictions are still in effect under the New Covenant, then Jesus commanded Peter to break the Mosaic law and sin. Even accounting for the symbolic nature of the vision, Jesus commanded Peter to engage in lawless behavior. Additionally, if the food laws were still in effect, Jesus taught a lie. His statement that God has made those animals clean was untrue. There is no biblical precedent for God giving someone a vision in which He makes a dishonest declaration and commands them to sin against His law. Even taken symbolically in the context of a vision, doing so would violate the character of God.
Second, if the food in the vision represents Gentile people, it would create a significant disconnect between its symbolism and its application to the real world. Eating unclean food was prohibited in the Old Covenant law, and fraternizing with Gentiles was not. When Peter told Cornelius and his family, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation” (Acts 10:28), the Greek word translated as “unlawful” is athemitone. This term does not refer to the Mosaic law. When the author, Luke, speaks of that law, he uses nomos. The word athemitone, on the other hand, is used to indicate something “not allowed” in the sense of traditions or customs; something considered socially taboo because it violates standards of decency. This is why some English translations use the words “forbidden” (CSB, LEB, NASB), “not allowed” (CEV, GNT), or “wrong” (GW, ISV) rather than the ESV’s “unlawful.”
There are no Old Testament laws that forbid Jews from interacting with Gentiles. And the Torah does not teach that the Gentile people are ritually unclean in and of themselves. So, when Jesus said in the vision, “What God has made clean do not call common” (or some translations say: Do not call “impure” or “unclean”), it wouldn’t directly apply to the Gentiles as a people. God did not need to make the Gentiles clean because they were never declared unclean. What was declared unclean in the Torah and, therefore, is subject to being made clean by God were the animals that Jesus commanded Peter to eat. And this is the key to understanding this passage.
Yahweh’s restrictions on Israel’s diet did not merely serve as a religious observance. They also acted as a practical, day-to-day social barrier to other cultures. The food laws made it difficult for the Israelites to socialize with Gentiles because of the risk of ritual defilement through the unclean foods that were served. They acted as a substantial social obstacle for any Israelite who wanted to remain faithful to the covenant. And we find this social phenomenon at play in Acts 10. Immediately following Peter’s vision, the text says,
Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.Acts 10:17-21
After Peter came out of the trance, he wondered why God gave him that vision. What did it mean? While he was trying to work it out, Cornelius’ men showed up, and the Holy Spirit helped Peter understand the vision by calling him to action. So he obeyed and visited Cornelius, to whom he ultimately declared, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (v. 28).
The subject of Peter’s vision was unclean animals; it said nothing about Gentiles. How did he come to that conclusion? Because he had been raised as a Torah-observant Jew, Peter inherently understood the impact that the Old Covenant dietary laws had on Jews interacting with Gentiles. He knew that socializing with them was not against God’s law, but eating unclean food was. So when Jesus told him in the vision that God had made all food clean, Peter put two and two together and realized that a significant obstacle between Jews and Gentiles had been removed. The end of the food laws also meant the end of that social barrier. That’s why we find Peter boldly sharing the Gospel in the house of a Gentile.
If the Old Covenant dietary restrictions are still in effect, then in Peter’s vision, Jesus commanded him to break the law and sin, and He lied about God making all food clean. This is why I find the interpretation taught by our Hebrew Roots friends flawed and untenable. On top of that, the Torah does not teach that Gentiles are inherently unclean. So the phrase “What God has made clean” wouldn’t directly apply to them. But it would certainly apply to the animals they ate.
Jesus had lifted the Old Covenant dietary restrictions. And because they were no longer in effect, Jewish believers in Jesus—like Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and the rest—could now freely associate with Gentiles and share the Gospel with no concern about social barriers and ritual defilement. Thus, Peter’s vision in Acts 10 harmonizes with all the other NT passages that teach those food commands had served their God-intended purpose and come to an end under the New Covenant (Mark 7:19, Rom. 14, 1 Cor. 10:25-30, Col. 2:16-17, 1 Tim. 4:1-5, etc.).