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He’s No Idiot: Peter’s Interpretation of the Vision of the Sheet in Acts 10

food in sheetIn an earlier post, we discussed how common interpretations of the words spoken from heaven to Peter in Acts 10:13, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” and in Acts 10:15, “What God has made clean, do not call common,” are often misinterpreted as abolishing Torah food laws.[1]

My purpose in these posts is not to condemn people for their pork chops or my personal favorite, chili-cheese dogs loaded with onions and slathered with mustard. I do not believe gentile Christians are required by Scripture to maintain these regulations… but not because of Mark 7 or Acts 10.

My purpose is to properly interpret these passages in context and to deliver the divinely inspired message within them from the theological black strap molasses that has been poured over them, obliterating that message. The problem is not what people make these text to say [Don’t worry about Torah food laws] but with what they conceal [God has commissioned Israel to preach salvation to the world… get to it.].

We said in the last post on this subject that I had three problems with the interpretation of Acts 10 as an abolishment of Torah food laws, other than Peter’s seeming ignorance that Jesus ever suggested any such thing.

The first was the fact that Peter’s reply to the voice from heaven is a quote and paraphrase from Ezekiel, who demonstrates his right to prophetic authority in a corrupt community by proving incorruptible even by the command of YHWH. This suggests that Peter is not supposed to obey the voice’s command to kill and eat the unclean beasts within the sheet lowered from heaven. He does well to resist. The voice’s counter, “What God has made clean, do not call common,” must mean something else. We suggested that its real meaning was that just as Peter was not to call clean what YHWH has called unclean, he is also not to call unclean that which YHWH has declared clean.

I believe that this is defended by two other points in the story.

So Peter is sitting here on the roof of Simon the Tanner[2] puzzling over what to us appears an obvious rejection of Torah food laws. (Acts 10:17) It is plainly not obvious to him. His puzzlement, however, doesn’t faze us. We are accustomed to thinking of Peter as a hot headed big mouth who gets in Jesus’ face in blind ignorance over Jesus’ teaching and declarations… this is just one more for us. He’s just not ready to let go of all that Jewish foolishness and even God speaking from heaven in a glorious vision can’t get through to him.

This is a big mistake.

This is the post-resurrection Peter. This is the post-40 days with the resurrected Jesus Peter, the post-ascension Peter. This is the post-Pentecost Peter. This is the post-Ananias and Sapphira, post-Simon magus Peter. It is this Peter who is perplexed and his confusion get’s addressed by the Holy Spirit. He preaches about it, and interprets the vision for us… we just don’t listen because we are too busy defending our lobster bisque. [Which is yummy.]

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.” Then, it says, Acts 10:19-20 “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.’”

Peter goes down and listens to what these men have to say to him about a gentile centurion to whom and angel of God appeared telling him to send for Peter. Peter rises and goes into the house of this gentile and this is what he says… this is how he interprets the vision of the sheet full of unclean animals, the voice from heaven telling him not to call unclean what God has declared clean.

In Acts 10:28-29, 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. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.”

What does Peter mean by unlawful? Does Torah say any such thing? It does not.

So, what is the unlawful part? It is a trend within Israel’s oral law, their Halakah culminating in the Traditions of the Elders designed to drive a wedge of hatred between Jew and gentile in a final throwing off of their mission to the gentiles.

A paraphrase of the vision then, especially in light of Peter’s interpretation of the event is…

“Good boy, Peter, you refuse to called clean these beasts that my Torah has declared unclean… now, don’t you dare called unclean that which I have declared clean… i.e. the gentiles. Go with these men and do as they ask, for this is from me.”

God proves these words by taking his Holy Spirit and pouring it out on these gentiles without baptism, without circumcision, without Sabbath keeping, without Mosaic covenant. God accepts them in their faith and repentance without making any further requirements upon them.

Soon, we will build from here, to declare why, knowing all this, I eat like a gentile and not like a Jew… without any contempt for Jewish observance of Torah food laws.


[1] “Peter & Ezekiel Argue with God and Win: Acts 10 in Light of Ezekiel 4.” This is, in turn, part of a series on food laws in Mark 7. “Jesus May Have Declared All Foods Clean But I Still Won’t Eat Chilled Monkey Brains,” and “Jesus vs. the Law: Torah, Halakah, and Jesus’ Declaration of Dietary Deliverance in Mark 7:19,” & “Mark 7:19 and the Little Participle that Could.”

[2] Many are under the impression that being a tanner made one unclean by Torah or Jewish halakah. According to Isaac W. Oliver in “Simon Peter Meets Simon the Tanner: The Ritual Insignificance of Tanning in Ancient Judaism” this is not really the case. They were dispised but not ritually unclean because they worked with clean animal carcasses.

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