Scripture: Acts 10:1-48
- Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman military man, has a vision in which an angel tells him to send for Peter
- Corny sends his men out to go find Peter
- Meanwhile, Pete has a vision in which God shows him food the Jews considered unclean and tells him to have a bite
- Peter is a good Jew, so he refuses the offer
- God tells Petey not to say something is unclean if God has said it’s okay
- Peter is sufficiently confused
- Cornelius’ men show up, and God tells Peter its okay to go with them
- Peter goes with them
- Cornelius is stoked to meet Peter, Peter tells him to chill out
- Cornelius says he and his family are ready to hear a sermon. They’re all ears.
- Peter finally gets the reason for the vision: the Gentiles are accepted by God (yay!)
- Peter proceeds to whip up a speech right then and there, recapping Jesus’ ministry, resurrection, ability to forgive sins–you know, gospel stuff.
- The Holy Spirit descends on Cornelius and his peeps and they start speaking in tongues
- Peter makes sure everyone gets baptized
- Pete hangs out at Cornelius’ house for a bit
Clean and Unclean:
Leviticus 11 outlines God’s law when it comes to eating/sacrificing/coming into contact with clean and unclean foods. The list ultimately goes past dietary laws and into everyday life events (e.g. birth, death, locations of latrines, etc.), describing what is unclean in God’s eyes and what is needed to make it clean again.
The clean/unclean system divided animals, people, and land into three categories to teach separation from the nations surrounding the Jews (the “ethnos”, Nations or Gentiles). “Animals that could be sacrificed were ‘holy’; wild game and fish that could be eaten but not sacrificed were ‘clean’; and animals that could be neither eaten nor sacrificed were ‘unclean.’ This separation parallels that of people (where the same defects disqualify both priests and animals): priests (holy), ordinary Israelites (clean), and Gentiles (unclean). With space, there is the tabernacle (holy), the land (clean), and the nations (unclean).” (Bakers)
The purpose of laws regarding purity:
Rules regarding cleanliness would’ve created in Israel a sense of self-identity as a “separated” people. According to Christian theologian Gordon J. Wenham, the purpose of kashrut was to help Jews maintain a distinct and separate existence from other peoples; he says that the effect of the laws was to prevent socialization and intermarriage with non-Jews, preventing Jewish identity from being diluted. (Wikipedia)
The Levitical laws also proved that it was impossible for a person to remain “clean” over the course of their life. Thus there were a great many rituals prescribed to make something (or someone) that had become unclean clean once again. The key takeaway being that cleanliness is directly related to God, and God is directly related to holiness. One must be “clean” to be acceptable to God because he is “clean.” Thus, Jews were instructed to be holy (set apart) because God was holy.
“The central lesson conveyed by this system is that God is holy but human beings are contaminated. Everyone by biology inevitably contracted uncleanness from time to time; therefore, everyone in this fallen world must be purified to approach a holy God.” (Bakers)
“There is a direct relationship between what is clean and what is holy in Scripture. What is unclean can never be holy. Some things that are clean may be consecrated and set apart as holy, but nothing which is holy is unclean; only that which is clean can become holy.” (LS&S)
Conversely, there is a linkage formed between the concept of something being “unclean” and “sin.” An unclean individual (full of “sin”) would be restricted from fellowship with God, and more often than not, restricted from fellowship with the greater community as well.
Cleanness and uncleanness in terms of food was one of the central distinguishing factors being being a Jew (a people set apart) and a Gentile (a common, unclean person, outside of God’s laws). Therefore “a Jew, in order not to eat of the kinds of food God had prohibited, could not eat in a Gentile home because undoubtedly there was going to be contamination there.” (LS&S)
The ritual system of purity that these laws created reinforced that “Yahweh was the God of life and was separated from death. Physical imperfections representing a movement from ‘life’ toward ‘death’ moved a person ritually away from God who was associated with life. Purification rituals symbolized movement from death toward life and accordingly involved blood, the color red, and spring (lit. ‘living’) water, all symbols of life.” (Bakers)
Evolution of clean/unclean concept:
Over time the prophets began to talk about cleanliness as something more internal than external. Ezekiel ultimately makes the case that God is the only one capable of making his people truly clean, and this is done by transforming man’s heart. “I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols; moreover I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh and I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and you will be careful to observe my ordinances.” (Ez. 36)
Jesus himself seemed to emphasize the internal aspects of cleanliness over than the external ones. Also, he frequently and willingly came into contact with unclean people (sinners, prostitutes, lepers, dead people, etc.) with no hesitation and no recorded “purification” of himself after the fact. Rather, Jesus’ contact with the impure made them pure again–to the dead he gave life, to the sick he gave health, to the sinners he gave forgiveness. Ultimately contact with Jesus becomes the way for all believers to become clean before God, as promised through Ezekiel, via the renewal of our hearts.
- Cornelius was in command of one hundred men and was the equivalent of an army captain or company commander in today’s military terms.
- Cornelius worships the God of Israel, attends the synagogue, and lives according the standards of the Torah. He prays at the designated hours of Jewish prayer, gives “gifts to the poor” and is devout. But he is not a proselyte — he isn’t circumcised. Because he refused to become proselytes, Jews would still have regarded him as a ritually unclean Gentile.
- Peter is not overly scrupulous in observing certain Jewish regulations. He stays at the house of a leather worker, who would come in contact with dead animals. Perhaps he even works with unclean animals. But Peter does apparently follow the Jewish dietary laws based on the Torah. (GCI)
- Cornelius’ household would have included servants and military orderlies and their families. Most likely a very sizable group.
- Commentators have suggested that Peter’s hunger, his thoughts of conflict between Jews and Gentiles in the churches of the coastal plain, and the flapping of the awning or the sight of ships in full sail on the Mediterranean are psychological influences on the vision’s details (Longenecker, Marshall).
- The four corners of the cloth let down may refer to the worldwide dimensions of the vision’s significance.
- Peter faces what he may view as a temptation or test of loyalty. He refuses, announcing his firm resolve to live in ritual purity (IVP)
- When Peter says “God does not show favoritism,” he “uses an idiom reflecting ancient Near Eastern practice. Literally the concept is ‘to receive the face’. To greet a social superior, one lowered the face or sank to the earth. If the one thus greeted raised the face of the greeter, it was a sign of recognition and esteem.” (IVP)
- Twin themes run throughout Peter’s account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection: historical verifiability and divine accomplishment. It is also noted by many scholars that the the Gospel of Mark emphasizes the same themes. (Mark is traditionally thought to have written Peter’s recollections/sermons of Jesus.)
- Peter realizes that Jesus was not seen generally after his resurrection, and he explains this. God chose those who would see the risen Lord, thus indicating that their witness not only has his approval but has its origin in divine initiative, not human motivation. (IVP)
- To Peter (a Jew), crucifixion was a cursed death according to Deuteronomy; to Cornelius crucifixion was equally despicable. Crucifixion was fit only for non-Roman citizens, slaves and provincials. Only if a Roman citizen was convicted of treason would he be crucified.(IVP)
- Note that the Holy Spirit came on the members of Cornelius’ household the same way it did on Jewish believers at Pentecost. Peter presided over both the inauguration of the church among the Jews as well as the Gentiles. This is often considered a second Pentecost, or the completion of the first.
- Interesting that Peter didn’t make Cornelius (or the male members of his household) get circumcised as a part of their conversion. Nor did he seem to instruct them in the ways of the Old Covenant. Yet, this would be a controversy that Paul would have to confront time and time again. Why do yo think this was? How would the vision of the animals had been different if God had intended Cornelius to become a Jew?
- What types of things/people/interactions do we consider “unclean” today? Is anything still “unclean”? What “unclean” interaction would it take a vision from God to convince you to take on?
- Peter’s declaration that “God does not show favoritism” is a statement of equality. In other words, “the people we thought were beneath us, God now sees as equals.” Who do we still see as beneath us? How can we see them as equals?
- IVP Commentary
- Wikipedia article on “Kashrut”
- Leviticus; Sacrifice and Sanctification
- Baker’s Dictionary: Clean and Unclean
- Grace Communion International Commentary
Post Discussion Perspectives:
- The church isn’t questioned when it takes care of the sick, orphaned or destitute (who would oppose the goodness of these actions?), it is when it reaches out to those that seemingly have no need for Jesus and are generally seen as “actively working against the values of the church” that questions of piety start getting thrown around. Ministries to porn stars and the homosexual community are examples of ways that God is pushing the boundaries of the church today.
- Why didn’t God say anything more to Peter about the Gentiles than “they’re clean now”? Why didn’t he give some rational for his decision and timing? God’s silence and simplicity are difficult to comprehend and require more faith than reason.