Understanding Acts 10

Hi, Nathan.

I was wondering if I might dialogue with you about biblical ideas or concepts I am trying to work out from time to time. In short, since completing Called to Obedience and reading Crazy Love a few years ago, I am reading the Bible with “fresh eyes”. There are things in the Bible I read now, which in the past I would have skimmed over or dismissed as irrelevant in our day and age. But now, I struggle with them. For instance Acts 10, Acts 15:29, or 1 Timothy 2:12 (or 1 Cor. 14:34). I value your opinion as someone who thinks hard on such matters, and tries to not let our culture and norms influence Biblical interpretation and application.

Let’s talk about food. What’s in – what’s out? This should be fun, as I know you’ve made dietary choices based upon your understanding of Scripture, and so I’m sure you’ve given it significant study.

In Acts 10, it appears God gives Peter instructions to put away his cultural foibles about clean and unclean food, specifically meat … what say you?

Ted

Well, I like to begin with what is clear and work toward the more difficult, so what better place to begin than 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing those from whom you learned, and that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (HCSB)

…“continue” suggests continuity with what has gone before, especially given the emphasis, “that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures.” This is clearly a reference to what we know as the Old Testament, so when Paul goes on to say that “all” Scripture is profitable/useful for “teaching, rebuking, for correcting, and for training in righteousness,” I am struck that I must wrestle with how to apply what we now call the Old Testament, but the original reader would have known as their only Scriptures. Dr. Ben Witherington III writes, “Hermeneutical principle number one is this: what the text could not have possibly meant to the original inspired biblical author, it cannot possibly mean today.” (The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism. Kindle Locations 45-46)

Furthermore, I’ve become convinced of this truth, well-articulated by J.I. Packer:

“Keep two truths in view. First, God’s law expresses his character. It reflects his own behavior; it alerts us to what he will love and hate to see in us. It is a recipe for holiness, consecrated conformity to God, which is his true image in man. And as such (this is the second truth) God’s law fits human nature. As cars, being made as they are, only work well with gas in the tank, so we, being made as we are, only find fulfillment in a life of law- keeping. This is what we were both made and redeemed for.”

(Growing in Christ, Originally Published: I Want to Be a Christian. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, c1977. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1996, 1994, 232.)

So…now I must wrestle with how to apply the law of God as found throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. This, I can attest, is no easy task, but a lifelong endeavor fully dependent upon grace and mercy!

As it relates to understanding what Acts 10 says or seems to say, I am bound to figure out how it works with and does not contradict the sense in which Leviticus 11 expresses the character of God. To be more specific, Leviticus 11 suggests that the reason we are to separate the tamei (unclean/defiling) from the tahor (clean/pure) is because, “For I am the LORD your God, so you must consecrate yourselves and be holy because I am holy….” (Lev 11:44), suggesting that this issue goes to the core of our identity—God-imitating, holy people.

Further complicating the issue, Lev 11 suggests that consuming these tamei creatures is an abomination (detestable/abhorrent). Why does this further complicate things? Because an abomination is something abhorrent to our very nature, suggesting that the food laws cannot be a ceremonial law! On this point, it is interesting to note Revelation 21:27; speaking of the New Jerusalem, John records: “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. “ Suggesting that the categories of clean/unclean, detestable, etc. are still very much in force at the launch of the world to come.

If we make a list of the things God calls abominable it becomes very clear that something which is detestable cannot change: child sacrifice, bestiality, necromancy, hands that shed innocent blood, a lying tongue, homosexuality, sowing discord among brothers, the wages of a prostitute, money earned by betting on dog fighting, etc. We find it impossible to imagine that a single other thing categorized in Scripture as an abomination could change to suddenly being okay. And this is appropriate, for anyone who suggested such a thing would have to be rejected as a false prophet (see Deut. 12-13) and remember Dr. Witherington’s first rule of interpretation). Which leads us to quite a problem because several passages in the New Testament, including Acts 10, seem to clearly indicate that God changed His mind about whether certain meats were to be considered abominable. How can this be?

As an aside, so as not to be distracted by whether or not the clean/unclean foods were specific to the Sinai legislation, note that Noah was aware of which animals could be eaten and/or sacrificed and which could not. This is why he takes a pair of all unclean animals and 7 pairs of all clean animals (Genesis 7:2).

So this leads us, finally, to Acts 10, where upon reading the actual text, we don’t find what we’ve all been under the impression it says. I wouldn’t be surprised if you, as I did, have a mental picture—likely derived from a children’s bible story book—of a sheet full of unclean animals descending from the clouds above Peter, when in fact the text says:

“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.” Acts 10:11-12 (ESV)

“…and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air.” (NASB)

So this was a sheet filled not just with unclean animals, but all kinds, both clean and unclean, as biblically defined. This will be important, because we are about to encounter a culturally rather than biblically-defined category.

“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.'” Acts 10:13-14 (ESV)

There are a couple things to consider here. First, if the sheet was filled with clean and unclean animals, why would Peter think God was telling him to eat an unclean animal? Imagine if God gave you a vision of a room full of women, your wife included, and said, “Rise, go and take a woman.” Would it even occur to you to imagine that God meant for you to take any woman but your wife? Of course not, because “thou shalt not commit adultery” is ingrained into your psyche. Likewise with Peter; in fact, Peter had even gone above and beyond.

What is the deal with Peter’s comment, “I have never eaten anything that is koinos/common or akathartos/unclean.”? Akathartos is the Greek word referring to something biblically defined as tamei/unclean, morally unclean. Koinos (a word you might recognize from koinonia/fellowship) is a category unfamiliar to us, but very familiar to Peter or any other observant Jew of Jesus’ day. It referred to a biblically clean animal considered to have become profane or common (as opposed to holy/set apart) by virtue of coming in contact with a biblically unclean animal (or unfit for Temple use, though not an unclean animal). This was a category extended to personal application outside of the Temple precinct by cultural tradition, not by biblical mandate.

Peter replies to God’s command to rise and eat by protesting, “But God, not only do I not eat unclean meat (obviously), but I’ve also always refrained from eating anything common, just to be extra careful.” This clean meat, in other words, became guilty by association in the minds of first century Jews.

Now again we come to a phrase where we are under the impression that God makes one statement, when in fact, He says something different. Acts 10:15 is even rendered to give such an impression in some translations.

“And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Acts 10:15 (ESV)

Because we are unfamiliar with the first century categories of unclean and common, we read this passage as if God said, “What God has made (i.e., “changed to” instead of “created originally”) clean/tahor/katharos do not call unclean/tamei/akathartos.” But this is simply not what God said, it is something we read into the passage!

This is about to make a whole lot more sense! So this happens three times and then the sheet is pulled up to heaven and Peter is left perplexed. And while he is pondering the Spirit speaks to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.” This is God’s explanation of what the vision meant. Peter understands; in fact, he has three Scriptural occasions to explain what the vision meant and he never mentions food, but somehow this fact escapes us!

First explanation:

“And he said to them, “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. I ask then why you sent for me.” Acts 10:28-29 (ESV)

Please note that nowhere in the Torah does it say it is “unlawful” for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, rather this was another tradition that had been added to God’s law; probably with good motivation, which is why God himself came to Peter to explicitly instruct him to ignore the tradition and not to “call any person common or unclean.” I hope you’re beginning to see that food in this passage is nothing more than a metaphor and the topic at hand was people, not food.

The second opportunity for Peter to explain what the vision meant is in Acts 11:1-18. After relaying the same exact story as we’ve just read in chapter 10, note both Peter’s summary of God’s instruction and the summary conclusion of those who listened:

“And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.” (11:12)

“When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” (11:18)

Again, the message is about Gentile inclusion, about people…nothing about any change to the food laws.

Peter’s third explanation is in the context of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The topic under discussion was how the Gentiles might be saved.

“And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15:7-11 (ESV)

So, what is Acts 10 about? The people of God were told to be holy by making distinctions, between what was holy and unholy, what was clean and unclean, etc. They were, indeed, to be distinct themselves, to be a set apart people by virtue of imitating God’s character. For centuries, they had followed God’s command to distinguish between what God created tahor/clean and what he created tamei/unclean…in other words what animals He made for food and what animals He did not consider food. They had extended the command to distinguish between clean and unclean foods to distinguishing between clean, common, and unclean foods. They had further extended this practice of distinction to people, considering the non-Jewish people either unclean or common (which, in fact, they often were, because of their not practicing the law), but the folks gathered at Cornelius’ home were God-fearers: Gentiles who had voluntarily taken upon themselves the practices of the Torah to the degree it was practical or they were allowed, and God needed to make sure that Peter’s conscientiousness did not prevent him from going with the messengers from Cornelius. Where, in fact, God wanted to demonstrate that He would make no distinction between the Jews and Gentiles, but would give the Gentiles the Holy Spirit by faith, just as he had to the Jewish believers on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

It is clear that the text of Acts 10 doesn’t say what we are given to thinking it says, and it is clear that Peter did not understand the vision to mean what we are given to thinking it means. Therefore, there is no longer any problem in reconciling Leviticus 11 and Acts 10, and I am now left to ponder Mark 7:19, Romans 14, specifically verse 14, and Colossians 2:16-17. Do they mean what we’ve so commonly thought?

4 thoughts on “Understanding Acts 10

  1. Ever come across the notion that clean food is healthy food to eat:

    A U.S. Navy manual comments, “All the important fish with poisonous flesh… lack ordinary scales…. Instead, these poisonous fish are covered with bristles or spiny scales, strong sharp thorns, or spines, or are encased in a bony box-like covering. Some have naked skin, that is, no spines or scales” (Survival on Land and Sea, 1944).

  2. I have. It doesn’t seem to be the primary motivation behind God’s classification, but it certainly is an interesting aside.

  3. I don’t know how to reply to your comment.

    I would really appreciate what you mean and how you arrive to the understanding that clean does not primarily means healthy, especially when it comes to eating certain animals.

  4. Martin, I’m not saying that eating clean is not healthier! In fact, I think it is healthier. What I’m saying is that it’s difficult to make the case from Scripture that health issues were God’s primary motivation for the classification of clean and unclean meats. I believe it is a clear side-effect, at least, but the Bible is curiously silent on the topic of in what manner eating unclean meats violates God’s character.

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