The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.
9 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour[a] to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
Last week’s entry discussed the vision of Cornelius, a Roman centurion stationed with his family in Caesarea.
Cornelius was what the Jews called a ‘God-fearer’ (Acts 10:2), meaning that he was a Gentile who believed in the God of Israel and observed parts of Jewish law. He never became a full Jew but was welcome to worship and associate with the Jews. In the vision, an angel of the Lord told Cornelius to send his men to Joppa to fetch Peter and take him to Caesarea. The divine plan here was to make Cornelius the first fully Gentile convert. The Samaritan converts from earlier chapters of Acts were half-Jew and half-Assyrian.
Acts 10 is the introduction to Gentile conversion. John MacArthur describes how events in Acts unfolded (emphases mine):
We find that God prepares two people. First He prepares the Gentile, and then He prepares the Jew. The Gentile is Cornelius, and the Jew is Peter. It has to start somewhere, so it starts with two guys. It’s gotta be more than theory. It’s gotta happen, so He picks out two people, Cornelius and Peter, and He gives each one a special vision, which is like sort of training in preparation. Before they’ll ever come together, there’s gonna have to be a lot of soil tilled up, and so He begins with a vision here in the first eight verses or so to Cornelius, and then from verse 9 on, He gives a vision to Peter; and this, then, is the beginning of the Gentile inclusion in the church. By the time you hit chapter 11, the Gospel’s gone to Antioch and Gentiles are getting saved. By the time you come from there and you start moving ahead, you hit chapter 13, and all of a sudden Paul’s going full blast to the Gentiles, and the problem is…is moving out, and it’s becoming sublimated. The thing is really going, and Jews and Gentiles are coming together in Christ. Peter runs back to Jerusalem. Says, “You’ll never believe it. People, you’ll never believe it. They got the same gift we got.” See. And then the report comes, and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, which finally comes to the conclusion that they will accept them fully as those who belong to Jesus Christ. So it all begins here in chapter 10 …
So, this vision that God gave to Peter is about moving him away from regarding certain foods and people — Gentiles — as unclean. Matthew Henry has this terse comment:
Peter had not got over this stingy bigoted notion of his countrymen, and therefore will be shy of coming to Cornelius … The scriptures of the Old Testament had spoken plainly of the bringing in of the Gentiles into the church. Christ had given plain intimations of it when he ordered them to teach all nations; and yet even Peter himself, who knew so much of his Master’s mind, could not understand it, till it was here revealed by vision, that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, Ephesians 3:6.
Verse 9 tells us that as Cornelius’s men were on their way to Joppa, Peter went on the roof to pray. He had no idea what was coming next.
Recall that Peter was staying with Simon the tanner in Joppa. Simon was an unclean person in the eyes of the Jews because of his occupation.
Roofs in that era and in that part of the world were terraces — places where people congregated or enjoyed peace and quiet. Peter went on Simon’s roof to pray. No doubt he was observing Jewish patterns of prayer which meant he prayed several times a day.
The ‘sixth hour’ means this was at noon. Given the time of day, he was hungry. Henry has this observation:
From morning to night we should think to be too long to be without meat; yet who thinks it is too long to be without prayer?
While the midday meal was being prepared inside the house, Peter fell into a trance on the roof (verse 10). Henry explains:
probably he had not that day eaten before, though doubtless he had prayed before …
The trance was:
ecstasy, not of terror, but of contemplation, with which he was so entirely swallowed up as not only not to be regardful, but not to be sensible, of external things. He quite lost himself to this world, and so had his mind entirely free for converse with divine things; as Adam in innocency, when the deep sleep fell upon him. The more clear we get of the world, the more near we get to heaven: whether Peter was now in the body or out of the body he could not himself tell, much less can we, 2 Corinthians 12:2,3. See Genesis 15:12,Ac+22:17.
The hunger and the prayer was the perfect time for the divinely sent vision of a large sheet — like a tarp — with four corners, containing all manner of animals, reptiles and birds (verses 11, 12). There were no fish on it, because Jews are allowed to eat fish. It is a ‘neutral’ food, by the way, meaning it can be combined with meat or dairy in Jewish dietary law.
We talk about the four corners of the earth. Peter is seeing this before his eyes. This is not only about food, it is also about spreading the Gospel around the world via the Church. Jesus died and rose from the dead for everyone, not only the Jews.
Henry tells us:
Some make this sheet, thus filled, to represent the church of Christ. It comes down from heaven, from heaven opened, not only to send it down (Revelation 21:2), but to receive souls sent up from it. It is knit at the four corners, to receive those from all parts of the world that are willing to be added to it; and to retain and keep those safe that are taken into it, that they may not fall out; and in this we find some of all countries, nations, and languages, without any distinction of Greek or Jew, or any disadvantage put upon Barbarian or Scythian, Colossians 3:11. The net of the gospel encloses all, both bad and good, those that before were clean and unclean.
it may be applied to the bounty of the divine Providence, which, antecedently to the prohibitions of the ceremonial law, had given to man a liberty to use all the creatures, to which by the cancelling of that law we are now restored. By this vision we are taught to see all the benefit and service we have from the inferior creatures coming down to us from heaven; it is the gift of God who made them, made them fit for us, and then gave to man a right to them, and dominion over them. Lord, what is man that he should be thus magnified! Psalms 8:4-8. How should it double our comfort in the creatures, and our obligations to serve God in the use of them, to see them thus let down to us out of heaven!
A voice from heaven said, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat‘ (verse 13).
There is no instruction there about vegetarianism.
The Lord gave Peter a vision of animals and other edible creatures, not of plants.
Peter resisted the divine order by saying he had never eaten anything common — i.e. defiled — or unclean (verse 14). He obeyed Mosaic law as laid out in Leviticus.
all of these dietary laws were given to Israel, and so, consequently, in the mind of a Jew, there was a division between clean animals and unclean animals; and no self-respecting kosher Jew would ever eat anything but clean animals; and Peter was this. He never touched anything but the clean, because that was the tradition. And you say, “Well, why did God make this distinction? Why did God make clean and unclean animals?” Well, No. 1, it is true, I think, that there are some animals who are perhaps more liable to carry epidemic-type diseases; and because of the fact that the preparation of food in those days wasn’t anything to what it became, God was kind of purifying Israel from at least the dominant threat of epidemic. Because, you see, they lived in a…in a community that was always close together. They moved in the wilderness in like a little garrison of people all jammed together. If an epidemic ever broke out, it could wipe ’em all out, and so God preserved their existence this way, although I think that’s only a minor point, because He coulda kept the diseases from them by His sovereign power.
The major point is this. God had them eating certain animals and not certain other animals for this primary reason. To distinguish them from … Gentile peoples. Now, in those days, social intercourse occurred at banquets. They didn’t have any of the entertainment we have today … feasting was how they had common relationships, so God just did this. God gave the Jews such distinct dietary laws that they couldn’t get together socially with Gentiles. Do you see? That was the point, because, as they went into the land of Canaan, it was so…so easy for them to get intermingled. Look what happened to ’em anyway. But God drew lines so that they would not be able, were they obedient to His standards, to be able to have a social kind of relationship with Gentiles, and that’s the point.
It is the same way today in much of the Jewish world. It’s a big deal for a Gentile to be invited to a Jewish home, especially for dinner or a party. It doesn’t happen that often.
The heavenly voice spoke again to Peter, rebuking him for calling God’s creatures common — defiled — or unclean (verse 15).
Henry explains that this vision represented the lifting of dietary law. Nothing is to be refused, especially living creatures. ‘Kill and eat’:
he has now, for reasons suited to the New-Testament dispensation, taken off that restraint, and set the matter at large–has cleansed that which was before polluted to us, and we ought to make use of, and stand fast in, the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and not call that common or unclean which God has now declared clean. Note, We ought to welcome it as a great mercy that by the gospel of Christ we are freed from the distinction of meats, which was made by the law of Moses, and that now every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused; not so much because hereby we gain the use of swine’s flesh, hares, rabbits, and other pleasant and wholesome food for our bodies, but chiefly because conscience is hereby freed from a yoke in things of this nature, that we might serve God without fear.
MacArthur discusses the social importance of this freedom for the growth of the Church:
He is abolishing, I believe, the Old Testament Jewish dietary laws. Why? They were designed to separate the Jew from the Gentile. What is the body of Christ designed to do? Unite them. Therefore, this one social line barrier had to be removed for them to come together. You see, they had to learn to be able to socialize around the tables together, because they were now one. And, you know, in the early years of the church, you know, this was the problem that kept popping up. The Jews and the Gentiles who were both in the church wouldn’t eat together, and this is what Paul dealt with in Romans 14. That’s the whole reason Roman 14 is written, because the…you know what would happen? The Gentiles were abusing their privileges. They’d have Jewish converts over and serve ham. See? And Paul says, “Now, you don’t need to do that. Sure, you’re free, and there’s nothing unclean, but you don’t need to do that, because that’s purposely offending that Jew who doesn’t yet understand his liberties.”
But he also says to the Jew, “Don’t you try to make the Gentile conform to dietary laws that God has set aside.” See, God wanted to remove the barrier that had been built to keep from being impure. He wanted to take it down so they could be one in Christ, and so I believe that statement there is the statement that abolishes the Old Testament dietary laws. Now that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to eat everything. I…that’s obvious. You know, there’s supposed to be a sensibility in terms of what we eat, but, nevertheless, there are no ceremonial dietary laws to keep people apart, because He wants us together; and this was the beauty of what the early church finally found. That what they called the agap[e] or the love feast, they came together to eat. Beautiful.
St Luke, the author of Acts, wrote that this happened three times before the sheet with the living creatures was taken back to heaven (verse 16).
The number three, as used in the Bible, is one of divine completeness and perfection. Bible.org has more, including this:
the biblical writers often employed the number three or wrote in patterns of three to provide a special emphasis that sought to engage their hearers/readers in exploring the full significance of the events or details of the passage at hand.
Henry describes what happened during the vision:
The sheet was drawn up a little way, and let down again the second time, and so the third time, with the same call to him, to kill, and eat, and the same reason, that what God hath cleansed we must not call common; but whether Peter’s refusal was repeated the second and third time is not certain; surely it was not, when his objection had the first time received such a satisfactory answer. The trebling of Peter’s vision, like the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream, was to show that the thing was certain, and engage him to take so much the more notice of it. The instructions given us in the things of God, whether by the ear in the preaching of the word, or by the eye in sacraments, need to be often repeated; precept must be upon precept, and line upon line. But at last the vessel was received up into heaven. Those who make this vessel to represent the church, including both Jews and Gentiles, as this did both clean and unclean creatures, make this very aptly to signify the admission of the believing Gentiles into the church, and into heaven too, into the Jerusalem above.
Having seen this vision — although not quite understanding it — Peter was prepared to meet Cornelius. The story continues next week.
Next time — Acts 10:17-23