Did Peter’s Dream Declare All Things Clean? A closer look at Acts 10 and 11

Acts 10 and 11 – Peter’s Dream
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.

Acts 10:9-16
“9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.” (emphasis mine)

Common Argument: People commonly use these verses to say that the Lord or Peter declared all animals clean.

Think it Through: How can a human like Peter declare all animals clean? If a vision from one person can change the Old Testament, then the basis for absolute truth is lost. Anyone can claim they had a vision from God and edit any part of the Bible at their convenience.

Short Answer: In Acts 10:28 and 11:18, we learn that God showed Peter not to call Gentiles unclean. God opened up the way to salvation for them. The vision had nothing to do with unclean animals; they have had the same characteristics since the beginning of creation.

Longer Answer: Something important to note is that Peter said in the vision that he had never eaten anything that was impure or unclean. This event happens years after the Lord’s death and resurrection. If Jesus had taught the disciples that they could eat unclean animals, Peter would have already eaten them by the time this story took place.

Moreover, the voice in the dream said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” The vision has to do with what Peter calls unclean that God does not call unclean. God never cleansed unclean animals! Like many passages in the Bible, we learn the actual meaning from reading the passage in context. The verses immediately following the vision explain its meaning.

Acts 10:17-22, 27-29
“17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” 21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?” 22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say…. 27 Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection…” (Emphasis mine throughout)

In verses 17 and 19, Peter was still thinking about the vision after it happened. Some translations say in verse 17 that Peter was perplexed or doubted the meaning of the vision. Peter did not instantly think – “Wow, now I can have a ham sandwich!” If the vision was easily understandable, he would not have had a hard time discerning the meaning. God showed Peter that there was something he labeled unclean that was not unclean in God’s eyes.

The full meaning of the vision is finally revealed in verse 28. Peter said that God showed him that he should not call any man impure or unclean.

Why was this an issue?

In Peter’s time, the Jewish people had a tradition that any contact or fellowship with a Gentile made them unclean. The Bible does not have such a rule. It was a man-made rule. God has always allowed Gentiles into covenant with Him (see Rahab and Ruth as examples). Peter labeled Gentiles as unclean. God showed him that he should not call any Gentile unclean because God opened up the way of salvation to them.

Like any other vision, there is an interpretation. In it, Heaven opened. This was to show Peter that the event to come was from God. The sheet of unclean animals that came down three times represented the three Gentiles that came to Peter’s door (Acts 10:19). Since Jewish people at that time viewed Gentiles as unclean, they are represented by unclean animals in the vision. God’s command to Peter to kill and eat is representative of God asking Peter to associate with Gentiles. Just as Peter never ate an unclean animal, so Peter never associated with a Gentile.

The meaning of the vision becomes reiterated in Acts 11. In Acts 11:1-18, Peter retells the vision and the events that immediately followed. Peter explained to his Jewish brothers how a group of Gentiles received the Holy Spirit just as they had (Acts 11:1-17). Peter’s brothers immediately understand the meaning of Peter’s vision after he tells them the story: “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life’ ” (Acts 11:18). Their conclusion was not that they could eat whatever they wanted, but that God had opened the way for Gentiles to receive salvation.

In I Peter 1:13-16, the Apostle Peter upheld keeping the dietary instruction of Leviticus chapter 11. See article on I Peter 1:13-16 by clicking here.

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