Peter’s dream in Acts 10 is used more than any other passage of scripture to argue that Christians are no longer expected by God to follow the dietary laws in Leviticus 11. Many believe this to be a proof text for the abolishment of many laws in the Torah. It is my goal here to give scholarly evidence as to why this text’s true meaning is not to abolish the dietary laws.
A closer look into this passage shows us that this vision was not about food at all. It is first worth noting that Peter utterly defies God when he is told to rise, kill, and eat. Why did Peter, who was speaking first-hand to God, refuse such a seemingly-simple command? It is because Peter thought that his unchanging God (Malachi 3:6) was changing his own sacred Word. Peter honestly probably assumed that this vision was not from God being that it seemingly completely transgressed his own character. The very next verse, as recorded by Luke, proves that Peter completely missed the meaning of the vision.
It is also worth noting that God had to give Peter the vision three times. If God were truly telling Peter that he can now go eat cockroaches or rats, God would not have repeated the vision two more times, because that’s exactly what Peter thought God meant! Peter believed that God was telling him that he can now eat whatever, which is evident by his “no, Lord” response, so God decides to give him the vision twice more in hopes that Peter correctly understands.
During the vision, after Peter refuses to accept that God is throwing away chapters of his own Word, God tells Peter that he is not to call anything common that God has already made clean. God has clearly called creatures like pigs, shellfish, rats, and vultures unclean (Leviticus 11); not that they are evil, but that they are just dirty animals that are purposed to be natural garbage disposals, not food! Did the death of Jesus somehow radically make those animals clean? Jesus died to redeem sinners, not to make a pig a clean animal. After all, Jesus himself affirms that validity of the Torah in his ministry (Matthew 5:17-19), and God has declared pigs specifically as being unclean in the kingdom following Judgment Day (Isaiah 66:17), so why would there be this random period between the death of Jesus and his second coming where all of these creatures are now clean? If you interpret this dream the way Peter did three times, you have these issues which you must recognize in your Bible. I would like to show you, using the same chapter in Scripture, that this passage is about something much deeper than what we can and cannot eat.
Peter, a first-century Jewish man, who had been raised his entire life under the teachings and traditions of the Pharisees and Sadducees, believed Gentiles to be “unclean” people and that Jews were to never associate with them. This is not a teaching of God, and it absolutely does not appear in the Word of God. On the contrary, God has always associated and recognized Gentiles as his people just as much as native-born Israelites (Numbers 15:15-16; Isaiah 56:3-7). Peter, however, had been taught his whole life by the wicked men of his time that certain people were subhuman and that God could never redeem them. And believe it or not, it took until this vision for Peter to understand that he was believing a lie; and the saddest part of this is that this vision is given to Peter approximately 10 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
God used a vision that he knew would grab Peter’s attention to teach him something Peter had been shut off to for so many years, even after Jesus died and rose again. But why was this necessary? This was necessary because God’s plan was for Peter to reach a man named Cornelius – a Gentile. Immediately after receiving this vision, Peter was met by Cornelius’s men on his behalf. Peter agreed to go meet Cornelius after realizing the true meaning behind the vision. Once Peter reached Cornelius, he had this to say:
So the next time someone tries to argue with you that Acts 10 is God’s way of telling Peter that we can disregard his laws and eat whatever we want, show them that God instead used this vision to help a fisherman blinded by his own tradition reach millions.